Romance vs Love Stories - The Good and the Ugh

| Thursday, February 27, 2014

A few months back, I was browsing Tumblr (because when am I ever NOT browsing Tumblr) and managed to catch the moment John Green first put up the freshly-released poster for The Fault In Our Stars movie. Internet squeeing ensued, and I thought it was a nice poster, as far as movie posters go. I'm not exactly a movie poster connoisseur, but you know, I thought it looked okay. Okay? Haha see what I did there I'm so clever.

ANYWAY. While I was admiring the poster, I also noticed the tagline beneath the title. It's riiiight there if you look at a larger version of the image, and this is what it says: "One Sick Love Story."

If you've read the book and know what this film is about, it's a 100% logical tagline. The characters are sick! And they fall in love! Clever! But that part isn't really what caught my eye.

It was the use of "love story."

Now, I'm just using the TFIOS poster as an example. It's certainly not a unique example, and no one connected with the book came up with that tagline. That's the film industry. But seeing this phrasing did remind me of something else.

Not long ago (almost a year exactly, in fact), Nicolas Sparks gave an interview in which he expressed an opinion that he's expressed several times before. You can read the whole interview here, but I'll quote the part I'm referring to below.

"Q: You once said the difference between a love story and a romance is that “love stories must use universal characters and settings.” What did you mean by that?

Sparks: 'Universal' means you feel as if they are real. You feel like you can know them. I don’t write stories about astronauts or CEOs of Fortune 500 companies or millionaires or movie stars. ... [People] relate to these characters, they begin to root for these characters and by the end they are moving in sync with the emotions of these characters. You need to do all of these things well to have a love story that works."

I've never been a big fan of Sparks' quotes dictating the difference between a "romance" and a so-called "love story." He's always had a thing for separating his work from the romance label, insisting that he writes "universal" stories, not fantasies. It's clear that he has a certain perception of Romance as a genre, and that perception is also shared by much of the public -- romances are fluffy, fantastical, meaningless little throwaway stories for people who want to escape reality. Those people, of course, are usually women. Big words coming from someone who heavily utilizes romantic tropes and whose primary readership is women.

There's also the wonderful not-so-subtle implication that Romance novels don't feel real, don't convey genuine characterization, and aren't relateable. It brings up the image of Fabio dangling a swooning maiden off of his arm and staring into the sunset while simultaneously dictating that fantasies are meaningless and empty, not something that "real" people want.

This isn't an uncommon stance. When people hear "romance," they think of pulp fiction. Dime-store bodice rippers. Vapid rom-coms starring some young starlet with minimal acting credit. Simpering teenage girls giggling over boy band stars. Bad dialogue, barely-there plots, and junk food fiction for uncritical minds.

It doesn't end there. It bleeds into romantic subplots, romantic scenes, romantic moments. A book can be chock full of action, but if characters take a moment to steal a kiss, people wrinkle their noses and roll their eyes, declaring the scene unnecessary.

Or at least, they do with CERTAIN books. You know the ones I mean. Those friggin' GIRL books. Gross. Women, it seems, cannot write love stories."Love stories" are LITERATURE, even for someone like Sparks, who most people don't leap to when they think "literature." We can tie back around the The Fault In Our Stars, which has been declared far and wide a literary masterwork of YA darling John Green, full of poignant metaphor and clever one-liners. Although it relies heavily on romantic tropes -- indeed, our two lead characters' romance is a major driving force of the plot -- you will rarely hear anyone refer to it as a (GASP) Romance with a capital "R."

To be fair, there is a technical reason for this. Romance as a genre generally requires a HEA (Happily Ever After) in order to qualify by genre standards, so when we have a romantic story that ends... not quite happily, it can't typically be placed in the genre. However, for this argument, it's not about genre standard, it's about public perception. The general public is lightning-quick to slap a "romance" label on anything written by a girl/woman, starring a girl/woman, in which that girl/woman maybe kisses a boy, regardless of plot or outcome.

This is about the idea that certain "love stories" are poignant explorations of the human condition, while others are to be chucked onto the pile of candy fluff and sad lady dreams. This isn't even about content -- many, many, many female writers create emotive, literary, gorgeous novels that incorporate romantic tropes, and those novels are time and again passed over or written off as fluff. It might be the misleading cover copy, or the soft pastels, or the fact that it's covered in lady feels. Whatever it is, the general opinion is clear -- "love stories" are good stories, and romance writers do not write good stories.

Ultimately, when men write about love and sex and passion, it means something. We respect it, or at least give it a fair shake. It's interesting. It's human. Even when they write from the perspective of a woman, they still manage to capture that SOMETHING, somehow. When women do it, we focus too much on the fantasy. It's too twee. The writing's not strong enough. There's something missing. It's not "good."

Heaven forbid it end happily, too. Endings in which love prevails and the couple closes on a happy note apparently aren't realistic. Realism must involve pain, misery, and death. Which precludes romance, naturally. Romance is, after all, a mere fantasy.

Though somehow we never seem to muster the same derision for dark, gritty, male superhero power fantasies. You know, like Batman. Hm.

In the same breath that we keep telling lady writers to push harder and kick their romantic darlings to the curb, we also call them cruel for taking the path so many male writers take. You killed someone the heroine loved? How could you? How needless. What melodramatic manipulative nonsense. Young women don't want to read about doomed love! Not from you, anyway. Maybe you should make sure the guy lives in the end, just to be safe.

This is so layered. It comes from so many angles. "Real" literature versus books-to-sneer-at, rejecting romantic relationships as something that brings a story down, refusing to give female-written work a chance if there's even a hint of romance, lauding men's work as literary genius while women's work is swept aside to make more room on the shelf, yada yada ya. So much.

In summary... I call foul, as I typically do in these situations. There's so much more I want to explore about how we perceive romance according to gender, genre, and approach, but this post is already unwieldy, so. It's a multifaceted issue, and one I'll likely explore in more depth in future posts.

In the meantime, I recommend you go read The Sky Is Everywhere or If I Stay or Eleanor and Park or something.


{ Kristan Sarah Stephanie Ingrid } at: February 27, 2014 at 8:08 AM said...

Great post, and great reccos at the end!

{ fairyhedgehog } at: February 28, 2014 at 3:35 AM said...

The argument about genre fiction of all sorts seems to go something like this: these books are popular but some of them are not very well written, therefore I will distance myself from all of them. I'm thinking here of Margaret Atwood and the Handmaiden's Tale - yes it is so science fiction, Ms Atwood!

I enjoy reading genre fiction of all sorts and yes it can be escapist but what's so bad about escapism? It's less damaging than alcohol and when you return to the real world you come back with a lot of traveller's tales and insights.

What it really comes down to is snobbery and wanting to appear to be part of an elite. Well [censored] that!

{ LA } at: September 28, 2014 at 6:19 PM said...

I love this post. I've seriously been considering publishing my WIP (what I consider a love story) under a male pseudonym for fear that it won't be given a fair chance with my female name scribbled across the front of it. The thing is, by doing that I'm not doing anything to help change peoples' way of thinking about this very subject. I'm so confused!

{ Doug Walsh } at: May 13, 2015 at 5:09 PM said...

A Google search for the difference between romance stories and love stories led me to this wonderfully written informative article of yours. Thank you Google. And thank you, S.E. I manage to still be a little curious as to what obligatory scenes or genre conventions there are that separate the two though. I know the L story won't always have an HEA scene. Great! But what else? Are there other major conventions that separate L stories from R stories?

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