On the heels of this Valentine’s Day, with the flowers beginning to wilt and half-eaten chocolates congealing and hangovers still being felt from the champagne, I feel like something needs to be said that pretty much no other Romance writer would, or perhaps should ever, say. It’s time to let romance die.
By romance, I mean the constructed artifice that surrounds our pursuit of love—that thing we perceive to be a necessary precursor to relationship, the one that presupposes a co-dependent relationship between two people, namely one of the giver and the other the receiver, in which the giver follows a scripted set of behaviors intended to elicit a favorable response from the other. This kind of romance needs to go. No, really, it needs to die. Not a slow death, either. More like a quick beheading.
It sounds cynical, I know. As a Romance writer, I also realize that I’m sounding hypocritical, or like a traitor to my own kind, but the reality is that I don’t actually write about romance. There are no games, flowers, or grandiose acts of romance, or the back and forth between two would be lovers because of a made-up problem that’s more fitting of middle school children than adults. Rather, I write about love and the myriad possibilities for personal growth and understanding that arise from experiencing love.
To me, love is life force. It’s what connects us to others, drives us to want to be with another person. It’s the one genuine emotion that can inspire us to want to be better than we are and elevates our awareness to something beyond ourselves. Love is family, love is sex, love is commitment, which means, at the root, its very source is connection. But there’s no genre of fiction called Love.
Typical Romance stories have little to offer when it comes time to show what love actually is or can be. When Anastasia Steele declares, “I want hearts and flowers” to her hot alpha billionaire/CEO/sorta-BDSM lover Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s because she needs to know that he wants more from her than just her body as an objectified outlet for his mommy issues. And what does he give her when he realizes she’s the only one he wants to smack into eternity? A room full of flowers and a large ring. While many readers out there were swooning, I couldn’t help but bite my lip. No, not because my inner goddess was wishing my husband would do the same for me, but rather because I had to wonder and worry just how many more times we were expected to buy into these vapid gestures that do not speak to a higher love, but rather to the insecurities that plague many new lovers who ask themselves the larger question—Am I worthy?
If we cannot answer that question ourselves, no one else can answer it for us. No amount of flowers, chocolates, expensive dinners or money spent on us can give us the reassurance we need that we are lovable people. If it does, it’s false, mere fuel for the ego and nothing more. The very notion that love can be expressed through objects simply leads to the objectification of the receiver and by extension the giver. And the moment that a person becomes objectified in a relationship, it becomes transactional. Therein lies the frustration and the misunderstandings that often occur as a result, forcing both men and women to wonder, what’s the point of any of it, and contributing, in part, to the hook-up culture that is so prevalent today.
This is where romance and love can become confused. Relying on acts of romance to express one’s interest or feelings is merely a way of hiding a fear of intimacy and vulnerability. Following a set of rules or conventions allows people to feel safe by not having to risk too much and face potential rejection. The kind of heart-wrenching rejection that makes us stand on the precipice of that cliff asking ourselves “Is it worth it?” when the real question is “Am I worth it?” To me the answer is yes, always. But if you cannot recognize your true worth or value, no one else will be able to see it in you. The fear of rejection strikes me as the reason that people hold onto the idea that romance is a fundamental part of any relationship. Romance reduces the risk of being disappointed or hurt. Much like a chess match, one move presupposes a limited and predictable countermove and so forth. But in the end, it becomes a game.
Facing this fear of rejection is essential to be able to love and be loved back fully. At the core of this fear is our own internal dissonance, the voice that tells us we’re not good enough physically, mentally or emotionally. Perhaps a not-so-compassionate parent or caretaker made us question our value, or a bad break-up led us to believe it, or perhaps it was an unrequited crush. Somewhere along the way we were led to think “I am not good enough”, which became “I have nothing to give”, which became “I cannot be loved”. So we dance the dance of the flirt, the sex goddess, the player, the predator, the prey, the virgin submissive, the impenetrable lover, all to cover up the fact that we don’t ever want to feel that badly again.
Acts of love are not the same as romance. They are not intended to impress or curry sexual favor, but to convey genuine feeling. When a gift is given (even flowers), or a kiss is stolen, or even a brief conversation over coffee is had (especially when any of these happens spontaneously), these are acts of love. During graduate school, I worked in a shop on Madison Avenue on New York City’s Upper East Side. When I’d walk by the old Payard Patisserie on Lexington Avenue, sometimes I would buy my now husband a dessert and stop by his office to share it with him. I didn’t do this because I needed an excuse to see him; rather, I knew he liked them and wanted to brighten his otherwise long, sad day. (He’s a lawyer so it’s always kind of sad for him). While this could be taken for a “romantic” gesture, it wasn’t because I sought nothing back from him, not his love or attention. There was no quid pro quo. It was an act with absolutely no expectation attached (except several hundred calories).
How I knew my husband would be pretty much the right partner for me only took a matter of weeks after meeting him because there was no romance. We met on a Thursday night, and I called him the next day to have drinks. (I took his number). After a couple of really awkward dates (he had made the mistake of reading Mars and Venus on a Date and barely spoke because the book argued that men talk about themselves too much), we managed to break the proverbial ice over ice cream in the middle of January. After that, we saw each other almost every day for two weeks. There were no rules about how much time was too much, no fear that he would stop wanting to see me if I made myself available. I was even the first to say, “I love you.” By then, I had had my heart broken enough times that I didn’t care. I was young, but old enough to have accepted that with the risk of love comes the risk of pain and that I was big girl enough to weather it. To me, finding someone to share my adventures and interests with was worth it. And this was before Internet dating and Elite Daily.
The Tinder/Hinge/OkCupid/Bumble generation faces a greater challenge of navigating the pitfalls of romance than previous generations because they don’t have a paradigm other than what’s being portrayed in the media. Nicholas Sparks, Sex in the City, and Rom-Coms do not provide a mold for those craving real love connection. They merely provide the fantasy that love comes with a hot guy who writes numerous letters and gives you flowers, or is willing to play the clown and humiliate himself in order to endear himself to you, or even better, foregoes his whoring ways because you’re the only one for him. Love isn’t about sacrifice or turning yourself inside-out for someone. It’s complete acceptance.
The longer we hold onto romance, the more we risk teaching another generation of young women they must sublimate their needs if they want to be in a relationship. I recently attended a talent show at my children’s school where two ten-year old girls sang the Meghan Trainor song, Dear Future Husband. It was incredibly disconcerting to hear young girls sing, “Take me on a date/I deserve it, babe/And don’t forget the flowers every anniversary/’Cause if you’ll treat me right/I’ll be the perfect wife/Buying groceries/Buy-buying what you need.”
It’s time to create a new paradigm for love and relationship that establishes a foundation based on honesty, equality, respect and a soulful connection, whether you choose to be monogamous or poly or whatever. Once that understanding takes hold, the kind of transcendent love that John Keats refers to when he wrote, “I love you the more in that I believe you had liked me for my own sake and for nothing else,” can then be possible.
In my Dahlia Trilogy, I created an all-around fantastic guy who would make most Romance readers cream their pants. He was a good guy. A really hot guy as a matter of fact. A self-made millionaire who was humble and down-to-earth. A surfer too. Then, I killed him off. Some days I’m sorry I did, but most days I’m not.
After killing him, I went into mourning and experienced one of my first real episodes of writer’s block. A friend told me that if it went on any longer, I was going to have to rewrite the story and keep him alive. That’s what got me going again. Because no matter how I felt about killing Shane Walker (Shaaaane!), he was going to have to stay dead or my heroine was never going to have the story she deserved. And, in the end, the story was about Dahlia not Shane. She was going to have her HEA (Romance code for “happily-ever-after”), but it couldn’t be Shane. The only way to allow her to grow organically, to do the deep work required to evolve and develop as a person, was to have her heart broken in the worst way imaginable. Breaking up with Shane would not have been enough.
Shane had to die, and some of my readers were not happy about it. HEA’s are one of the hallmarks of the Romance genre. Many readers of Romance won’t read a book that doesn’t promise an HEA. In fact, when I first solicited reviews for my books, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the first questions that bloggers would ask is if the story has an HEA. They just need to know. But, in my view, it’s not the responsibility of the author to give the reader what she wants instead of the ending the character deserves.
While literary fiction is often expected to have some sort of unhappy or “realistic” ending, Romance is a different beast. We don’t watch Rom-Coms expecting the hero or heroine to die in the last scene. Romance is the same. The happy ending presupposes a particular storyline, which more often than not makes Romance plots too predictable. Even if twists and surprises are promised in the book blurb, they often have little to do with the central relationship and more about the conflicts or back stories of the characters. By already anticipating the happy ending of the central characters, very little can happen in a story that yields that much surprise, especially when most Romance stories involve so few characters.
My goal in writing Romance is not to fulfill expectations, but to challenge them. Of course I thought about giving my characters an HEA or at least a “happily-for-now,” which is a concession some readers are okay with (although it’s like going out for your favorite ice cream and discovering they’re out of your flavor so you have no choice but to settle for your second choice). I liked the idea of my characters finding someone they want to be with. I wasn’t about to put them on a roller coaster ride of ups and downs without giving them—or myself—some kind of satisfying ending.
This is when I learned to appreciate the genius of George R.R. Martin. Game of Thrones has made a sport of killing off beloved characters (the list is too long, just think Red Wedding) and not so beloved ones (SPOILER ALERT: King Joffrey took too long to die). My appreciation lies in the fact that it’s not about the element of surprise and shock in allowing a character to die but the exercise of one’s freedom as an author to work without a character and to recognize when it’s best for the story—even if your character is a hot surfer named Shane. In the end, the author has a greater responsibility to the story than to the character. At least in my case I had a larger story to tell and manipulating the story in order to preserve the hot surfer would’ve stunted the rest of Trilogy.
Unfortunately, many readers like a character so much that they will judge a story based solely on that particular character’s fate. This presents the author’s dilemma (at least for one trying to build a fan base) of being true to your reader or to your story. I remain steadfast that the latter is more important. Ultimately, those readers who like and are committed to your stories will understand why you choose to do what you do, even if it’s unpleasant and horrible (again think Red Wedding).
I still believe that Romance novels have the potential to give readers happy endings while mirroring realistic experiences. George R.R. Martin does a brilliant job of reminding us that no matter how important a character may seem, he or she can still be thrown out of a tower or die brutally at the hands of an enemy. No matter how hot or sexy or rich or beautiful you are the same fate awaits us all. Death is change, which means death is possibility. When something as final as death occurs, then we are forced to consider options we wouldn’t have otherwise. No it isn’t pretty, nor is it ideal, but it’s life.