People Like to Put Us Down

By Poison Ivy,

And I’m not just talkin’ about my generation. Every generation that reads romances gets the same put down from someone: “When are you going to read a real book?” “Why do you read those sex stories?” “You should read something important.” “Why don’t you read about real life?”

Uh, excuse me? Real life? What could be more real than feelings that develop between two people that are so overwhelming they are willing to forsake their families and even lose their lives for love?

It’s worth bringing up Romeo and Juliet, because they were famous lovers whose desperate feelings we find it easy to dismiss today merely because they were young teenagers. Yet in their time, they were of marriageable age. Throughout history, families have married off their children as it suited the family, not the individual, no matter how much personal misery ensued. Romeo and Juliet epitomize personal rebellion against centuries of social tradition. No wonder they ended up dead.

It has only been in the last century or so in the western world that both men and women have had the luxury of arranging their own lives and choosing their own mates. The difficulty of choice in an open field should not be underestimated, since we do not have thousands of years of social history to guide our freedom. Maybe divorce holds out hope that mistakes can be left behind. But most of us don’t want to make mistakes in the first place.

Given this situation, you could say that romances are a tool to help people figure out how to recognize the right mate. Even though romances are about an area of human feeling that has always existed, that has frequently been sung about, and that has inspired countless poems, plays, paintings, and myths. Because classical artistry is based on life situations in which the commanding interference of others is a key element in the romantic relationship. We still suffer interference from interested family members, but modern romance is pretty much up to just the two people who fall in love.

Yes, it is natural to fall in love, but it is not logical. Loving feelings simply are not rational. And every person falls in love a different way. When those irrational feelings and high emotions strike, how do we decide what to do? How do we distinguish between infatuation and love? Between sincerity and flattery? Between protectiveness and power plays? We need a road map. And because every person is unique, we need many variations on this road map. Hence, all manner of romances. It’s so simple when you think about it logically: We need romances!

Of course a romance about a lonely billionaire and a spunky sculptor isn’t an exact blueprint for a happy future. If it were, we’d have fewer unhappy billionaires and starving sculptors. But learning how to recognize the person with whom you could happily spend all your life is important. Learning how to negotiate conflicts with that person in an era in which you could just walk out the door and find someone else is also important. Romances present many varieties of scenarios in which the heroines learn more about themselves and about the men for whom they care. What to fight over and what to let go. How to fight fair, for that matter. It’s marriage counseling in advance, if you will.

Do romances present plans for saving the world? Actually, yes, sometimes they do. Sometimes there’s an environmental or political issue at stake, and often there is a serious moral situation, too. Romance heroines and heroes frequently are shown asking themselves what is right and what is wrong. Many romances also deliver an inspiring message of hope in a troubled world. The characters love and survive despite hideous odds against them.

Romances are rooted in the personal, and because they are, they have tremendous emotional impact. Which means that as teaching mechanisms, they are unmatched. I guess the spoonful of sugar theory comes into play here, too. For many of us, it is easier to confront difficult life choices when they are embodied by someone else and prettied up a bit, too. Romances fulfill a very useful function of drawing us in while at the same time engaging us in a safe manner.

So, when people try to put you down for reading romances, don’t let them. You don’t have to reply with a snarl or a sneer at their ignorance. But you don’t have to feel defensive, either. Romances are big in more than one way.