love is dangerous

Love is dangerous. Love threatens everything we are, threatens to break the world open.

There’s this great two-piece post by thejgatsbykid and Foz Meadows about Kylo Ren as a romantic figure; it suggests teenage girls are reading him as romantic because they’re taught to read abuse as love.

Abusive behaviour isn’t a new topic in the romance community. The first romance-only bookstore in the US doesn’t stock Fifty Shades of Grey because they think it depicts an abusive relationship.

I really liked the post about Ren because for the first time it made me think personally about how I’ve been trained to read romance. I have absolutely experienced what Meadows describes when reading intentionally abusive characters: ‘At times, I’d even feel frustrated that a particular story wasn’t doing what I’d anticipated – why wasn’t the heroine together with that guy? Why had the narrative set them up romantically, then dropped him off the board?’

I read romance first and foremost for an emotional experience. My adult life is so much steadier, emotionally, than my teenage life. I’m more focussed, more sure of where I’m going, who my affection and loyalties lie with, what my faults are. But my god, there is still an ocean of teenage longing in my soul. So: romance. I experience the beautiful, painful warmth of love and brand-new lust, without the chaos of being a teenager. It’s catharsis.

I wrote in my last post that the person having the sexual experience in romance is the reader. I also think it’s the reader who has the romantic experience.

All the discussion around the alphahole that I’ve seen has been about whether he’s abusive and whether it’s anyone’s place to police other readers’ sexual and emotional desires. But what about the alphahole as a literary function? What emotional experience does he give to readers?

Love is dangerous. It has an edge that cuts deep – it’s why it feels like nothing else on earth. The dark and dangerous romantic hero isn’t just a stand-in for a real-life boyfriend: he’s the embodiment of the emotional threat that is love.

Of course there are other ways to evoke the same experience, but when Edward and Bella head into the woods and they know he’ll either kill her or find some control, I didn’t experience that as abusive, I experienced it as true. In the moment of all-out love – not the resolved moment, but the moment when your blood is burning with it – it feels 50/50 that you’ll survive it.

The romance community is criticized all the time for giving readers unrealistic expectations of relationships. Our tired answer? We are grown-assed women who can tell the difference between reality and fantasy.

As one of those teens who absolutely learnt to read dangerous, violent characters as romantic, I don’t feel that ever informed the choices I made in reality. I stayed away from people who made me feel afraid, and was attracted to people I liked.

(Obviously that doesn’t guard against abuse in real life – all I mean is that I wasn’t looking for the patterns of abuse I read in romantic books.)

So I fell for a couple of wonderful people – and that lust and crazed adoration didn’t feel good or kind. It felt dark. It was untrod ground that took me away from my parents and my bright childhood. It stole my breath. It made the world catch on fire. My need to possess that someone made me feel violent.

What the Ren article showed me about myself was troubling, and I hope we keep having these conversations that shed light on our subconscious influences – and on the social assumptions we write into our books.

But I also don’t want to lose sight of romance as literature. We tell stories to reflect the deepest truths about ourselves. A romance hero isn’t a template for a real-life boyfriend – he’s a literary investigation into the emotion of human love.

Comments 8 Responses

  1. Liz Joyce

    Great article; lots to consider and discuss. I don’t think the “grown-assed woman” answered is tired. It’s true. However, for me, there is more to the argument. No one worries that teenage boys, and young and old men who like genre fiction will start to “act out” what they read. For example, a man could be a fan of Lois Lamour westerns, but no one worries that he’ll actually change careers and become a cowboy. Or if he watches a Mission Impossible movie, no one worries if he’ll start climbing skyscrapers (on the outside). It’s so belittling when females are expected to end up in abusive relationships because they read books with alphahole heroes. Also, the things I love about romance novels and novellas is the “fun” of opposites attracting. Also, most of them — at least the ones I enjoy — are about both the heroine and hero growing and changing, opening up to one another. The h and h discuss their relationship. they both think about their relationship. It’s part dance, part passion, it’s about the journey because a happy ending is pretty much guaranteed. I like being able to relax about that, and enjoy the internal and external journeys of out eventually-to-be-happy couple.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Yes! Antagonism to love is exciting to read. You know where it’s going, and that’s what makes it fun. Dangerous characters do tend to be exciting characters to read, because they’re unpredictable.

  2. Sally Seaver

    I agree that love is dangerous, very much so. I agree with the idea that there is a vicarious emotional experience going on for me the reader with the books I enjoy. I also agree with the fun of seeing unusual pairings and how they develop chemistry and how they experience personal growth.

    One of the elements that I enjoy and only occasionally find in a fiction romance is the fantasy flowering from how the love relationship makes an impact on the society that the hero and heroine live in. So many books make it all about the relationship. It’s one of the things I like about “Untamed” that in the beginning of the book the hero is trying to bring about a desirable political outcome. And the ending embraces more than just the bonds of the couple: the hero’s circumstances are improved, the heroine’s circumstances are improved, but there is also a new investor who can and will influence life beyond the household — and the original political goal has been achieved. In other words, the context or setting of a relationship matters (as any good author knows)—why can’t the new relationship have an unusually good impact on aspects of the setting? Good relationship (with good communication and good sex) and better outcomes for others, or better outcomes for society. For example, I think there are elements of this in “Saving Grace” by Julie Garwood and “A Lady Awakened” by Cecilia Grant.

    Can’t leave without saying to you, Anna, that I thoroughly enjoyed “Untamed.” Thank you very much.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Thank you Sally – I’m so glad you enjoyed it!!

      I hadn’t really thought about the romance impacting the wider social world in a conscious way before – what an interesting point. I always think about family relationships, about the way romance looks from the inside versus how it looks to people on the outside. I really love this distinction for some reason. I think because it highlights how personal romance is.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Thank you! It took me an embarrassingly long time and many words to finally put my thoughts that succinctly. It’s fun thinking of romance characters as so archetypal and metaphorical. I hardly ever do!

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