Some Thoughts on Romance

I have now finished reading my very first romance novel, The Duchess War by Courtney Milan. For those unfamiliar with the controversy currently tearing the Romance Writers of America apart, and Milan’s role in bringing the RWA to task for institutional racism, here’s a primer. There have been many expressions of solidarity and support from the SFF community, which has been contending with its own history (and present) of racism for some time now, and after a tweet from author Casey Blair seemed to call me out personally, I felt it was time to start reading some romance.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from a genre that my own mother describes as trashy and formulaic, but I’ve had to tell enough people that fantasy is more than an endless parade of Conan the Barbarian ripoffs. It was well past time to look beyond the genre’s surface reputation. I’m glad I did.

The Duchess War was the first of Milan’s books to come in at the library, and it’s on the historical fiction rather than SFF side of things; I still thought it was great. The novel was sweet, with many compelling characters, a well-crafted plot, and a lot more to say than I’d ever been led to expect from romance (except on Twitter, which does have a few redemptive qualities). There was a bit more sex than I’m used to, but really only a bit more. I’ve read SFF that was far more obsessed with sex than this romance novel, but without the high character stakes or even character relevance that made this book’s sex scenes worthwhile. Besides which, I’m old enough to recognize the power of fiction to reflect and model social/sexual dynamics, and this book took a LOT more care with its depictions of both good and bad sex than most of the SFF I’ve read.

I’ve written my share of sex scenes (you don’t need to tell me what you think of them), less graphic, for sure, than the ones in The Duchess War, but not otherwise so different in content. I agonized over them. It’s not easier or more frivolous than designing a magic system, and it can have a greater effect on the quality of your book. Rarely has a book or series been panned for the vagaries of its magic system, but a poorly written – or, worse, poorly conceived – sex scene can do readers actual harm. Plenty of well-regarded books have done so.

The attention Milan puts into her characters’ sex lives – not just into the physical acts, but into the relationship dynamics those acts stem from, and the way the sex and the relationship affect each other in a self-reinforcing cycle – yields a product that is far more impressive, far more important, far more interesting than I was ever led to believe.

Which inevitably brings me to the question: why was I led to believe that a huge, billion-dollar industry, encompassing nearly a third of all fiction sales and dominated almost entirely by women writing about sex and relationships in all manner of settings, would be boring? Why did I expect it to be, to quote a character from Fire and Hemlock, sentimental drivel? The more I think about it, the more remarkable it seems that our culture manages to convince young men that romance is simultaneously:

  • All about sex
  • With a female gaze
  • Not worth reading

Point A isn’t entirely true, but let’s set that aside for now and just stare at this list. Young men like sex! Most of us* also care A LOT about being able to give our partners what they want, whether we have a current partner or not, and would be far better served in that regard by reading romance than by reading the works of some Golden Age sexual predator. So while it’s not shocking or surprising that our messed-up culture discourages young men from picking up any genre that is female-coded and dominated, both by telling us that it’s worthless and that we’ll be mocked if we give it a try, it’s still…remarkable. It should be remarked upon.

Mind you, I’m not saying that romance as a genre does a great job of modeling healthy relationships. Again, I’ve read just the one book so far, and I started with this badass author precisely because she has called out racism in her field. I had reason to believe her books wouldn’t horrify me. But whether Milan’s novels are reflective of her field or are in fact its gold standard, it doesn’t do us any favors to teach our young men that the genre’s overwhelmingly female gaze makes it frivolous and trashy, unlike, uh, Hemingway? Fitzgerald? Asimov? I mean, wtf.

Because it’s time to get back to point A: romance is not “all about sex.” The plot of the Duchess War involves a woman with good reason to believe that public attention will cause her permanent harm and likely endanger her life. She’s a master tactician, but caught between the sleuthing of a public official and the courtship of an attractive but clueless duke, her ability to keep out of the spotlight seems doomed, as does her ability to keep her best friend and keep her guardians out of poverty. The duke, in the meantime, is a man with a traumatic upbringing, trying to overcome a poor grasp of tactics to undo his father’s legacy and upend the social order. To call their tension formulaic or their eventual coupling predictable is to miss the masterful use of dramatic irony. The fact that romance readers know these two will end up together, and that they will make excellent partners and allies when they do, is a good part of what makes the reading pleasurable. What’s more, the story does not end with their wedding or the sex that follows, nor does the tension between their needs end there.

I’m not actually going to give spoilers here: it’s a good book, and you should read it. The point is that there is a plot to enjoy and care about, outside of the sexual tension and the descriptions of its release. To say that The Duchess War was “all about sex” would be like saying Game of Thrones was all about dragons. It’s true that there are dragons! A bunch of characters spend a bunch of time thinking and talking about dragons! But that doesn’t really do much to explain the plot of George R.R. Martin’s series or its adaptation to the screen, let alone their cultural power. I learned more from reading Courtney Milan this month than I did from reading Steinbeck or Salinger in high school. We should take romance seriously.


*A centenarian once called me a “nice young man,” and when I asked her at what age I would stop being a nice young man and become simply a nice man, she said 35. By that measure, I still have two and a half years before I have to stop considering myself a young man.

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