Romance done right?

I learn the darnedest things when I peruse the Web. I always enjoy checking out The Mary Sue blog site, for even if I don’t agree with all the positions the articles take, they always offer me food for thought. This morning I found a report on a scientific study that claims men are not attracted to women who can (or try to) make them laugh. They appreciate girls who laugh at their jokes, but not ladies who tell jokes of their own. The scientists who conducted this study certainly didn’t talk to any of the men I’m privileged to know well, all of whom appreciate women who can match them quip for quip.

If this study is accurate, how much of the blame — and the responsibility for sparking a change — may lie with fiction? In “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde famously theorized that art does not imitate life, but rather, life imitates art. Art shapes our perceptions and expectations. So much of our understanding of what is normal, what is right, what is masculine or feminine, and what is romantic, springs from the stories we take in. If Wilde is right, as I believe he is, those of us who write fiction have the power to challenge stereotypes and reshape outworn and limiting tropes, if only we choose to do so.

As the article points out, the idea that a woman who tells her own jokes isn’t attractive to men (because women’s jokes aren’t funny) has its roots in an old and oft-reworked “romantic” script that casts “the man as the ‘performer’ who will ‘win over’ a woman, while the woman plays the role of withholding gatekeeper.” These words take me back to Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction, a study of Victorian ideals of womanhood that I read while I was beavering away at a dissertation on fairy-tale motifs in nineteenth-century British novels. It included a piece of advice from a conduct book, for girls to cultivate the “mild and retiring virtues” rather than the “bold and dazzling ones,” because the latter were likely to inspire “admiration rather than affection” (as if the two couldn’t go hand in hand). In other words, men should talk, and women should listen; men should joke, and women should laugh in response; men should be impressive, and women should be impressed. A capable, competent woman is not desirable.

Apparently the ideas expressed in this relic of the nineteenth century are still hanging around our necks, fed by decades of our pop culture. The Defrosting Ice Queen trope is everywhere, from Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films to Jurassic World. Films like Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish feature strikingly unique heroes whose love interests are the epitome of bland ordinariness. Then we have the legions of YA fantasy romance novels following in the footsteps of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, in which an ordinary human high school girl’s life is given unwonted purpose when a bold, dazzling male vampire/werewolf/angel/demon/alien/whatever shows up. Boys are impressive, girls are impressed, again and again and again.

Which brings us to the article’s crucial question: “Can we really not imagine romance as an equal opportunity impress-me fest?”

I write romance fantasy. At times I get the feeling some consumers of geek culture would like me to be ashamed of this, but I refuse to be. I understand the dissatisfaction with romance, and the low expectations associated with it, when I look over the books I’ve read in the past two years and see how many of my favorites include no central romance at all (Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings; Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names; Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook; Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead) or have a love plot that I find the novel’s least interesting/appealing aspect (Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy; Kate Elliot’s Spiritwalker Trilogy; Betsy Cornwell’s Mechanica; Marissa Meyer’s Cinder; Naomi Novik’s Uprooted). Yet if I don’t care for the romances I see in speculative fiction, my answer in my own writing isn’t to shun romance as inherently unworthy but to try to do it right, on my own terms.

In my novel Atterwald, the heroine must win over the hero, if she’s to have any luck curing him of the wasting disease that afflicts him. It takes some doing, but in time she impresses him with her imagination, optimism, and warm heart, and he starts to reveal impressive qualities of his own. The situation between hero and heroine in my follow-up novel The Nightmare Lullaby is even more difficult, as each has reason to distrust the other. Yet slowly and surely they win each other over, discovering in each other intelligence, empathy, and integrity.

One of my favorite writers of romantic plots in fantasy and sci-fi, Sharon Shinn, created a compatible couple in her novel Jovah’s Angel, an agnostic engineer and a shy, intellectual angel (this time it’s the heroine who isn’t quite human). One of their evenings together is described this way: “Their conversation was thoughtful, unhurried, built half of memories and half of observations, and Caleb had never felt so completely in tune with himself or another human being” (258). Now there’s a description I wish I’d written.

A few other books/authors that I feel get the love story right: Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards! (Sam and Sybil are a delight); Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog; Steven Brust and Emma Bull, Freedom and Necessity; Emma Bull, War for the Oaks (one of the few human heroine/nonhuman hero romances I actually like); Patricia McKillip, The Sorceress and the Cygnet (Meguet and the Gatekeeper); Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls; Juliet Marillier, Wolfskin, Son of the Shadows.

What are some fantasy and sci-fi novels you feel get the romance right? Let me know in the comments below. Look for more information about The Nightmare Lullaby in the coming weeks.

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