The biggest complaint about the romance genre is that it’s predictable. Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Smooches and purple prose and happily ever afters. You pick up just about any romance novel and you pretty much know how it’s going to go.
Which is kind of the point.
It’s emotional porn.
It’s gets you where you’re going. It gives you what you need.
The fact of the matter is, like every other genre out there, romance novels allow readers to experience things that they can’t really get in real life. In the same way the Harry Potter novels let me know what it would be like to have magical powers or Sherlock stories let me vicariously live with that level of intelligence, romance novels let me experience the ideal fantasy of romance without real-world baggage.
In the same way most porn sex is not the same as real-world sex, romance in a novel or movie is not the same as real-world relationships. And, even when people try to recreate it, it’s never the same. Because, while stories teach us about the world and try to accurately portray the world, they don’t always have to play by real-world rules.
If I cook a romantic dinner for someone, chances are I’ve screwed something up. The vegetables are overdone. The side-dish got a little cold waiting for the entree to finish cooking. I burned the crust on dessert. And, even if I did get it perfect, there are a million other things that could go wrong. My partner may have had a big lunch and isn’t very hungry. They had a crappy day at work and vent about it all through the meal. They aren’t a big fan of whatever meal I worked so hard on.
These are things that romance novels don’t have to worry about. Within their covers, things happen the way you want them to. Even if you have to go through a million hoops to get there, you know the expectations you hope for will be given to you by the end. No matter how long the story teases you, you know the final payoff will be worth it. Like grown-up fairytale stories, you know every book ends in a neatly wrapped happily-ever-after. And, in a world that can never promise you that, sometimes you need to escape to a tried-and-true place that can.
Another one of my go-to emotional porns is Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. I know, I know, it’s so cliché. The mouthy, non-conforming woman wins the love of the tall, dark, and broody rich guy. I know, I know. But, honestly, the banter between these two iconic characters is right up there with Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict. As predictable as they are, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy feed that deep down desire that every non-normative girl
has, telling us that no matter how out-of-place you feel there’s someone out there for you. Someone there to match and love all the parts of you no one else gets. That someone out there sees—truly sees and loves—what the rest of the world ignores. That someone out there will love you, not just despite all your flaws and faults, but because of them.
What I love most about these two is how many versions of them have grown out of pure fanlove. From the BBC mini-series to the Seth Grahame-Smith's zombie-hunting twist, these two have lived and loved a million times over, keeping their timeless story alive and relevant with each new in-coming generation.
Like I said when I started this, I read and love what most people consider literary trash. And, I think, of everything I read—probably even more so than the erotica and straight-up porn I consume—romance novels probably get the worst reputation. People love nothing more than to read snippets of the purplest prose in these novels and discount everything else. They love to point out their ridiculousness and corny, wishful nature. People just love to protest that their stories are predictable and aren’t realistic.
And they are predictable and they aren’t realistic. That’s what they’re supposed to be. It’s what makes the genre what it is. In truth, they are as realistic and trope-filled as sci-fi stories or fantasy epics. They say as much about the world we live in and what we wish it could be as any other genre. Show me a person who doesn’t wish that love was enough to keep a relationship going. Who doesn’t wish that love was a strong enough force to rely on unwaveringly. Who doesn’t wish that love could fix everything and last forever. These stories are a literary wish of what love could be like. Of what we’d want it to be, if only it could.
The fact is that love never works out like a romance novel. But, sometimes, reading about a world where that kind of love does exist makes it easier to live in a world where it doesn’t. It reminds us of what love could be. Reminds us that, even if that kind of love doesn’t really exist, we can always stand to be better to each other and to expect better from each other. It can, for the space of a book, make us feel loved—unquestionably, uncomplicatedly, unconditionally—even when, before we turned that first page, we felt anything but.
These stories aren’t real and will get you in trouble, if you think they are. But sometimes you just need that break from reality. That emotional kick to the heart. Sometimes, you just need a chance to be and have more than the world you live in allows.
They remind us that love is a miracle. And that, even though we may not deserve it, we owe it to each other to try to be the kind of people who could.