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By author/artist/non-conformist, Jess C Scott
1 November 2011

An essay on the difference between substance and fluff.

* Part of the Real Love Vs. Romance eBook.

P.S. I understand that romance is a very popular genre--everyone has their own preferences! However, as an author/artist, there are certain things I'd like to create a greater awareness of as well (in particular, the glamorization of unhealthy relationships).

If you've something to say/share/add to the discussion, feel free to contact me anytime.


"Love Vectors" | image from Meaning of Love, Life

* * *

I enjoy escapism from time to time, as both a reader and a writer.

I like to have some depth to the characters and the love story they're involved in. Nothing annoys me more than a shallow, obsessive, dangerous, unequal "romance" that's actually based on lust or physical attraction, a romance that is portrayed as the ideal.

This is a theme that has become very popular in mainstream/commercial YA fiction (mostly due to the commercial success of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga). This is precisely why one of the genres I work in is Young Adult Fiction.

I believe there's more to life than popularity and the latest trends and fashions. There's nothing wrong with finding these appealing, as there are social and other perks to being well-liked by one's peers.

However, I think commercialism has a tendency to take things to the extreme. Market power is exploited to the detriment of social value. Superficial and shallow things like romantic fluff (i.e. what is "lacking originality or profundity") turn into the actual substance to mass market consumers.

This is one reason I've always been very wary of consumer capitalism.

A quick definition:

"Consumer capitalism is a theoretical economic and political condition in which consumer demand is manipulated, in a deliberate and coordinated way, on a very large scale, through mass-marketing techniques, to the advantage of sellers. The theory is controversial. It suggests manipulation of consumer demand so potent that it has a coercive effect, amounts to a departure from free-market capitalism, and has an adverse effect on society in general."

-- Wikipedia: Consumer Capitalism

Films like Titanic and classic works such as Romeo and Juliet contain a love story (and romantic elements). The substance lies in the characters involved and their drives/motivations, which separates these stories from the "mindless entertainment" type of shallow, fluffy romantic stories.

There'll always be a market for mindless entertainment, but what is both irritating and dangerous is how these works often cause innovative, original work to be ignored or discouraged.

Shelly Barclay has a very concise article titled, Modern novels: Assessing the romance genre. She writes:

"With apologies where it does not apply, the romance genre tends to be overly gushy, shallow, unbelievable and tends to be tumultuous in a boring way.

There is a lot of petty bickering (To add to the suspense?). There are a lot of 'other' men and women trying to intrude (To add to the suspense?). Worst of all, there is a lot of horrible, boring and vapid dialogue.

It should be said that there are extraordinary romance novels. Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre come to mind.

However, for a romance novel to be extraordinary, it has to have more than just romance. It has to be historical, exceptionally insightful or add some other tangible element that adds foundation to the story.

To be fair, there are many excellent writers out there who choose to contribute to the romance genre. They write well-rounded, moving and memorable novels. There is something special and worthwhile about their novels...[which] catch the attention of those of us who do not particularly enjoy romance as well."

-- Modern novels: Assessing the romance genre

Grantley Morris has an interesting article where he questions if romantic fiction is the female equivalent of porn.

He writes that "both erotica and romantic fiction create images of, and create a longing for, things that no normal partner could ever match, with the result that both sexes end up wishing their partners were more like those portrayed on the screen. In real life, the initial euphoria of romance wears off. The really heady stuff is more likely with a new partner."

A woman wrote in to Grantley's website with the following comment:

"Women get caught up in story fantasy [and] become dissatisfied with their lives because their husbands don't measure up to the hero, and the romance isn't there as it is in the story.

If women would put in more effort into their real life relationships instead of living through fantasy, there would be less family difficulties. Women are so easily led by their emotions, and feelings. They are very 'I' centered also. Through these fantasies they focus on how everyone should be treating them but never see how they are treating others."

-- Reader E-mail / Romantic Fiction

The following excerpt from Gayle Goldwin's WomanSpirit Oracles states:

"In ancient times, women needed joy and fulfillment in their lives, just as women now do.

But women then were taught that they would find it within themselves--in the activities, pursuits and pleasures that they enjoyed. Their modern sisters, raised in patriarchal cultures, have been taught to look to a man for fulfillment instead of to themselves.

Romance is a fantasy designed to make women obey Man's wishes in hopes of gaining his approval. Romance is not Love. It is Need. It is not joy, but only a brief distraction from depression and pain."

-- WomanSpirit Oracles

The romance genre may be strong commercially, but as a writer, I'm more driven to write love stories than fluffy romances (love stories can also be very entertaining, when there's the right mix of elements). There is nothing laudable about romantic fantasies which GLAMORIZE and/or trivialize unhealthy relationships.

In all honesty, it's society that suffers in the end, if, in the name of commercialism/profits/consumer capitalism, "romance" is viewed as "real love," and Real Love ends up being devalued because it lacks cheap thrills and shallow excitement (i.e. the qualities which make "romance" much easier to exploit for profits).

* * *

UPDATE (29 August 2012):

Jennifer Hamady, voice coach and counselor:

"Choice is a tricky concept when it comes to young people--and those of any age--who blur the lines of love, lust, insecurity and the desire for validation. Fifty Shades blurs those very lines, providing readers with an implausibly happy ending to an unhappy, unhealthy, and all too common tale."

-- 50 Shades of Concern / Psychology Today

UPDATE (1 Feb 2013):

Carey Purcell Says:

"Anastasia and Christian's relationship [in Fifty Shades] is not romantic. It is abusive. The ways he tries to "keep her safe" are not masculine or sexy. They are stalking. Fearing one's husband's reaction to an unexpected pregnancy is not normal, because "boys will be boys." It is sad and dangerous and should not happen in a healthy relationship."

-- Carey Purcell / Huffington Post

UPDATE (6 Feb 2013):

Suzanne Says:

"I hate to break it to some of you romance fans, but no man is going to 'read your mind' and see how much you love him while you're busy denying your attraction to him, much less your devotion, and come chasing you down to declare his undying love and sweep you off your feet into the happily ever after. Just ain't gonna happen in real life."

-- Suzanne Says

UPDATE (11 February 2013):

Lonnie Barbach, a San Francisco based psychologist:

"The more centered you are and clear about who you are and happy in your own life, the less these other things are going to affect you," Barbach says. "The poorer your sense of self is, the more you're going to try to make up for it with external stuff."

-- Lonnie Barbach / Health US News

UPDATE (11 February 2013):

Stuart Fischoff, Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology:

"Part of who we are is who we hang with and what we consume ... If you keep feeding into your mind these kinds of self-assassinating pieces of information, then you're going to stay hidden. You're going to stay living in a half-life."

-- Stuart Fischoff / Health US News

UPDATE (26 March 2013):

Alyssa Rosenberg on ThinkProgress:

"This narrative is dismal on and off the page and screen because it builds disrespect and inequality into the narrative of both real and fictional relationships."

-- The Persistent Idea That Women Can Tame Men
And Need To Fix Them

UPDATE (13 April 2013):

On Psychology Today:

"Romance fiction [is] the flip side of porn. Many women insist that the two genres are polar opposites—and with good reason. Porn denies love and relationships in favor of nonstop grinding body parts, while romance is all about relationships with the breathless sex an appropriate outgrowth of tumultuous love. But the larger truth is that both genres focus on gender-based erotic fantasies."

-- Michael Castleman

UPDATE (15 April 2013):

On A Witch Rants:

"I see some very big problems with the popular culture in fiction and movies right now--which may or may not be tied into this massive upswing in rape culture and the decline in the status of women in this country. . .the normalization of all of this kind of drama and violence [is] very disturbing."

-- A Witch Rants

UPDATE (17 June 2013):

Barbara Taylor Bradford, the doyenne of women’s fiction whose 27 novels have sold 88 million copies worldwide, says:

"...Taylor Bradford also admonished 'hero' character Christian Grey as 'every woman's worst nightmare, although he's rich'."

-- Daily Mail UK

UPDATE (1 July 2013):

On Wrapped Up In Books:

"The problem is this type of [abusive] relationship is glamorized and romanticized. The narrative frames this kind of relationship as ideal. To pretend as if this relationship would result in any sort of happily-ever-after is laughable and the opposite of romantic.

...There was no character growth. It concerns me to read gushing reviews that rave about how 'hot' Travis is or how the reader wants him to be her 'book boyfriend.' Look, I'm into tattoos, but I am not into controlling, domineering, manipulative, violent guys. There's nothing sexy about abuse."

-- Wrapped Up In Books

UPDATE (12 August 2013):

On Academy of Women's Health:

"We must be attuned to the way women are treated in books and movies, as such popular culture can perpetuate dangerous violence standards toward women."

-- Susan G. Kornstein, MD / Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Women's Health

UPDATE (18 November 2013):

Comment on Why Fifty Shades of Grey is Not an Incredible Love Story:

"God, that book was the worst book I've ever read. I can't stand how all young romance stories these days are similar to this: A 30 year old aloof, hot, bad-boy billionaire meets 20 year old virgin and they INSTANTLY can't live without each other and have tons and tons of "hot" sex. (The sex scenes in 50 Shades weren't hot at all, to me). And magically, within a week of meeting, the bad boy's walls fall down, girl ditches all her friends because jerkface becomes her whole world, blah blah blah (and in a lot of stories, girl gets pregnant and everyone is thrilled, especially the jerkface badboy). Ride off into the sunset, "The End." How is any of this healthy, let alone the basis for a sustainable love."

-- Morgan / The Gloss

UPDATE (28 April 2014):

Amy Rae from Melbourne, Australia:

"Love triangles have become a prerequisite for YA novels. Originally, author Suzanne Collins planned for Gale to be Katniss’s cousin, but her editor encouraged her to change this to a 'romantic interest' to appeal to the drones of YA readers, solely interested in hot guys and bad romance."

-- Amy Rae (also posted on Booksie)



1 Nov 2011: The above essay is part of Real Love Vs. Romance, a collection of (informal) essays on commercialism's de-spiritualizing effects on society.

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