My Farewell to Romance Novels

The other night, sitting in Caroline’s living room after our Mormon studies discussion group (incidentally, the same night that she presented on Mormon Women and Ritual Healing), a few of us stayed after to continue discussion on roles of men and women in the church. I found myself thinking on, then talking about my personal farewell to romance novels.

Over the years, I’ve read a number of romance novels. I won’t go into specifics, but let’s just say that I’ve always had a fairly readily available stream from friends … good friends. For me, it seemed a rather harmless method of escapism, and filled some of my boredom slots. However, about five years ago, I started noticing some patterns that greatly disturbed me

I found the romance novel plot rather unvarying. When you take away the trimmings (historical vs contemporary vs futuristic vs fantasy), it’s generally the same, recycled story. Woman. Man. Attraction. Woman yields sexually to man. Woman frustrated that man does not love her. Woman leaves. Man realizes that he does love woman, and needs to do something spectacular to regain her trust. Simple, yes? Forget his stomach, the way to a man’s heart is sex.

Aside from the traditional domination/servility themes, which run counter to my most deeply held ideas of love, my problem is that engaging in sexual activity does not ensure love, especially within the LDS community. More often it leads to guilt, shame and emotional devastation. Just as pictorial pornography paints an unrealistic expectation of the female body, I find that romance novels paint unrealistic expectations of what men should be like in romantic and sexual relationships.

And more than recognizing the sameness of the pathetic plot, I found that my relationships with men were also affected. I realized that I genuinely expected men to be aggressive, if not sexually, then in their pursuit of me. I noticed that I had dated more non-members because they tended to be more open about pursuit, which lead to other problems when they wanted more than I was generally willing to give. And in dating these more aggressive men, I glanced over men that I could have had better relationships with.

And so, I made a conscious decision to stop reading romance novels. At first it was easy. I felt to righteous. Then, as my initial zeal wore off, I’d find myself craving a fast and easy read. Since the books were so readily available, I found that I had to find other things to fill my boredom slots. I increased my activity in other areas. I started reading more non-fiction. I started going out dancing more. I started making more time to spend with friends. I returned to full church activity. I started doing anything that would take me out of the house … hiking, skating, walking. In essence, I filled the void.

We’re often told that the Word of Wisdom is shaped to protect the weakest in the fold. I’d say that the injunction against pornography is also shaped for the weakest of us. A good friend of mine doesn’t go to the beach alone. He laughs that he needs the conversation of others (even when skating) to prevent him from focusing on bikini-clad women. I generally laugh along with/at him, but silently applaud that he knows and guards against his weaknesses.

I’m not sure what, if any, kind of comments will be posted in response to this piece. However, I’d like to set some ground rules. I’d like to focus on obstacles to relationships … be they with romantic partners, children, friends or relatives … and how people have overcome them.

Dora

Dora is a pediatric critical care nurse. Therapy to alleviate the stress in her professional life include traveling around the world, reading, partner dancing and hosting dinner parties.

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  1. Eve says:

    Dora, I really appreciated this post. Thanks for your candor about overcoming a habit you found inimical to the full, healthy life you wanted. Although romance novels have never appealed to me, your story really resonates: I have my own destructive habits I’m attempting to overcome, as I imagine we all do. In some ways it’s the universal challenge of the gospel, of repentance and change.

    As far as romance novels themselves go, a few years ago, I was looking for work, and an LDS acquaintance who was working as an editor hired me as a proofreader of trash fiction, mostly romance novels. I eventually determined that they were emotional pornography and quit, in part because I didn’t want to labor in their production and in part for other reasons having to do with the company itself. But I completely agree with your connection between porn’s unrealistic female bodies and romances’ unrealistic narratives of seduction (and unrealistic potrayals of both men and women). Neither porn nor romance is an innocent escape; both are immoral in the sense that they lie about who we are as men and women and human beings and thus warp and diminish our ability to relate to one another freely and truly.

  2. Caroline says:

    Hi Dora!

    Sorry, I’m going to stray from where you want this post to go and talk about romance novels.

    I too have been addicted to romance novels. They can be very fun and entertaining. I’m pretty much weaned off of them, though I might still read one or two a year.

    Though one could consider them a form of (soft) porn, I don’t think they are quite in the same class as visual porn. I make this distinction because when I read a romance novel, I am invested in the characters. I care about them, I cry with them when they are hurt etc. There is an act of empathy going on, as well, no doubt as some titillation. I don’t think visual porn has the same investment, the same empathy. It just seems more insidious to me.

    With that said, I find it very interesting that GA’s don’t focus much on the soft porn of romance novels (if you want to call it porn). Here are a few theories for this:

    a) they don’t know the extent to which Mormon women are reading them
    b) they don’t think it’s that serious a problem since romance novels are patriarchal and reinforce marriage and traditional roles for women, which they like
    c) rather than turning sexual attention away from a spouse as I think visual porn can sometimes do, romance novels tend to make wives more sexually interested in their husbands.

    Anyway, sorry to take where you were going so far off track, but I find the topic of romance novels fascinating.

  3. stacer says:

    I tend to gravitate toward fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction, all of which have been called “trash” by literary circles. One of the things I love about the romance in the good ones is that it does reflect actual human experience, if in an unusual setting. I find that human truth often comes out more in such genres because they embrace speaking in metaphors.

    While I understand your reasons for choosing not to read romance novels (especially the formulaic ones–I’d put them down for bad writing anyway, I’d think), I think for me it’s about finding good books that go beyond formula into reflecting the richness of human relationships. I think those kinds of stories can actually be cathartic or revelatory for readers, vicariously experiencing the relationship. And I think those kinds of stories can be found in all genres.

  4. Eve says:

    stacer, I completely agree that there are insightful and incisive works of fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction that go beyond formula and illuminate our experience. Sorry about the “trash” comment–I didn’t mean it as an observation on genre, but rather on the quality of the novels I was editing. They really were bad.

  5. Stephen says:

    This was very well written and incisive.

    Thank you.

  6. Dora says:

    Caroline and Stacer ~ I hope that I didn’t come across as condemning those who read romance novels. I just know that for me, personally, they had a bad effect. One of which was the reinforcement of patriarchy, as Caroline so aptly pointed out.

    As for literature with romance in it, I’m all in favor. However, I think that these can’t rightfully be classified as romance novels. One wouldn’t say that Austen was a romance novel writer, eventhough her works definitely focus tend to focus on romantic relations between the sexes. Nor Hugo or Dumas.

    I know that there are many different types of romantic novels. Some feature sex-lite. Some are fully X-rated. I would contend that the best writers are able to convey romance and passion without all the nit-picky details of the sexual act.

    And I would not label all sci-fi, fantasy or historical fiction trash, being as I read a fair amount of those as well. I love how Stacer put it, ” … it’s about finding good books that go beyond formula into reflecting the richness of human relationships.”

    I can even see how, as Caroline pointed out, it may help a married couple to be more sexually adventurous. But for a single woman who is rather chomping at the bit, it can be frustrating …

  7. Bored in Vernal says:

    Sometimes we don’t even realize what we are putting into our minds. A few years ago when my teenaged daughters started bringing romance novels home from the library, I cautioned them about this type of literature. They told me they needed a light read and that there was nothing wrong with them. I picked up one of the books at random and turned to the “spicy” part. I began to read it out loud in our kitchen. The girls turned all shades of red and begged me to stop! I kept on and on and I think I proved my point. I still giggle when I think about it. Apparently it wasn’t that bad to read silently, but to hear their Mother reading it aloud in the kitchen…!!!

  8. Mo Mommy says:

    My personal mindless reading authors include James Patterson. For some reason he almost always slips a minor sex scene into his books, whether the story warrants it or not. It’s irritating that I have to skip over 2 or more pages of a book that I got for the purpose of reading. I guess it’s a sign I should change authors…

    “rather than turning sexual attention away from a spouse as I think visual porn can sometimes do, romance novels tend to make wives more sexually interested in their husbands.”

    I respectfully disagree. Romance novels were the rage in our ward years back. Now, I’m not the chick flick/ romance novel type, so I didn’t ever read more than one, it wasn’t my thing. But I have several friends who devoured them. Our bishop actually gave a talk about the fact that romance novels are essentially soft porn and help to shape an unrealistic expectation of relationships. Could such a thing be true, you ask? Sadly, yes.
    One of my very closest friends was a fiend for romance novels. After two very recent, back to back affairs, she shared with me that these novels sparked her interest in finding “something else”. She craved the excitement, newness and “romance” she so often read about. Her mommy life and adoring husband didn’t give her the charge that books did, so she went looking for something that did. Her first stop was her best friend’s husband, her next one was a married man who ended up getting an additional girlfriend pregnant.
    Are romance novels SOLELY responsible for her fall and excommunication? No. But if she feels they played a part, then I think it can likely be called evidence by even the loosest definition.

  9. Caroline says:

    Mo mommy,
    I suppose romance novels can affect different people in different ways. I know for me and for a couple of friends, they do tend to make us more interested in the husband. But how sad if they played some part in leading your friend to adultery.

  10. former romance reader says:

    OK, I am probably going against the rules here and posting about romance novels. But I have a point, I promise!

    I have read a few romance novels in my time. And yes, I believe they can be destructive, and yes, I believe they can be harmless. Much depends on the author, the story and the reader, obviously. But, in general, I am against them.

    My main problem with them is the same as Dora – the formula. In the ones I have read, the formula is this – woman and man meet. (they either hate each other at first meeting, or they love each other – either way, the meeting is dramatic)

    They fight their attraction for one another.

    They give in, because the force of their attraction is too strong.

    They break up, spend about 100 pages pining for each other.

    They joyfully reunite.

    This is very problematic, because it sends multiple harmful and destrutive messages (apart from the problems of sexual yielding):

    1. If there’s no sparks at first, there never will be (not true).
    My first date with my DH was BORING, but it got better, and there sure are sparks now!

    2.Fighting attrtaction is futile, you will never win, and you might as well try to “stop the earth from turning” (or some such phrasology). Again, not true. Fighting attraction is essential to relational success, you have to learn to restrain your urges, because not only is there a time and place, but there will always be somebody outside of your current relationship who either finds you attractive, or vice versa. Fighting the attraction there is crucial to your marriage.

    3. Break-ups are never final. Again, not true. IMO, most break-ups are final, and on-again, off-again relationships are rarely healthy, and should mostly be left in the ‘off’ position. There’s a reason you broke up, and pining for 100 pages won’t bring him/her back.

    OK, longest comment ever. And I do think that if you recognize that relationships/men/women aren’t really like that, they can be fun to read, in moderation, like on the beach or something. But as a regular hobby? I don’t recommend it.

  11. Starfoxy says:

    Maybe I’m lucky to have been just the right age to find Fabio lame (He was appearing in butter commercials when I was 9 or so). When I asked my mom what romance novels were she described them as “Books with Fabio on the cover.” So, by the transitive property of equality, romance novels have always been lame in my mind.
    I suppose that is why I buy “I can’t believe it’s not butter,” they saved me from the dangers of romance novels. 🙂

  12. Eve says:

    Starfoxy, maybe I’m just tired, but the idea of “I can’t believe it’s not butter” commercials saving you from the ravages of Fabio is making me laugh uncontrollably. Now THAT (along with Bored in Vernal’s sex-scene read-aloud) is a parenting tip to remember. (I’m still thinking hard about the ethics of duct tape after reading Tracy M’s thoughts on the reverence post. I like it.)

    Has anyone else read Margaret Atwood’s _Lady Oracle_? It’s one of her earlier novels, very funny, somewhat over the top. The main character has a job writing romance novels, excerpts from which, accompanied by Atwood’s inimitable acid commentary, are sprinkled liberally throughout the book.

  13. stacer says:

    Eve and Dora, I wasn’t speaking to you specifically about the “trash” comment, just noting that where I come from (reading mostly genre) and basically trying to say that not all genres were alike.

    Dora, thanks for the clarification between “romance novel” and “novels with romance in them.” I tend to classify that way, too, but I wasn’t sure that you were thinking in the same direction and wanted to be clear.

    I don’t read romance novels at all, mainly for all the reasons listed above. I find that of the genres outside literary fiction, it’s the genre most riddled with cliches, sexy scenes, and bad writing and storytelling (i.e., bad wordsmithing as well as bad plotting/characterization).

    I do, however, enjoy teen romance novels–or, in other words, teen chick lit–because they’re much less formulaic, much more insightful (in general), and generally tend to focus on the dating/social aspect of things rather than sex (though of course in YA lit you have to be careful, too, because some authors believe “coming of age” stories should involve sex–cf Judy Blume’s “Forever”). That’s where I’m at in my life, dating, and I’m not much beyond where I was at 17 as far as actual dating opportunities go, so I actually find sometimes good insight. Often, these kinds of books focus on themes such as becoming your own person before you become part of a couple, that sort of thing. I like them.

  14. EmilyCC says:

    I’ve never really been into romance novels or movies because they seemed so unrealistic and they only depict the initial courtship (isn’t that usually the easy part?).

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Dora. And, Bored in Vernal, I’ll definitely have to remember that parenting tip!

  15. stacer says:

    “isn’t that usually the easy part?”

    I suppose, if courtship comes easy to you. There are some of us who look at those movies and think how unrealistic they are because they make finding and falling in love with someone look entirely too easy.

  16. John says:

    Sounds like every eposide of the |”Loveboat”

  17. Stephen says:

    Reminds me of giving up football. I still miss it, but I think the household is better for it not taking up time every weekend.

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