Friday, December 21, 2018

What Does Love Excuse: Choices in Romance Literature

A core problem haunts romance literature, namely, every society--no matter how tolerant--draws the line at certain relationships.

Don't believe it, ladies! (Kate's addition.)

This is distressing in a genre which rests on the premise that love can conquer all. I am not opposed to this premise--though I prefer that it be objectively addressed. If Romeo is going to marry Juliet, I prefer them to know what they are getting themselves into.

The best writers agree with me and tackle the problem of same-but-different or love-ain't-easy with panache.

Even the best writers, however, stumble over the limits of tolerance. Some things people are just not okay with.

I'm not only talking about obvious limits like incest and pedophilia (and even those limits vary by culture). Many writers, like most societies, draw lines at certain dynamics. BDSM is okay--except when . . . Role-playing is okay--except when . . . Traditional roles are okay--except when . . . Non-traditional roles are okay--except when . . .

In the Law & Order episode, the parents play power games
with each other. Fine! Except they use their kids to do it.
Throw children into the mix and the whole things gets even more complicated.

And the truth is, intelligent and insightful people should make distinctions about what works and what doesn't. However, doing so immediately raises the issue that distinctions ought to be made at all. Love is not an overwhelming justification for abandoning spouses, significant others, family members, and social responsibilities. Shoot, even Lois & Clark agreed that Clark should leave the relationship to save his planet.

Once the possibility occurs that people ought to make distinctions, the question becomes, "Well, then, what are the distinctions?"

Where's the line?

The fear here is that acknowledging the line (some things are not okay; some things are absolutely okay) will lead to bigotry and/or imprisoning/damaging relationships: people who leave due to social pressure; people who stay due to social pressure. If we agree that a father abandoning his wife and child for another woman is not okay, does that mean that a father abandoning his wife and child for another man is also not okay? Wiring, rather than lust, has now entered the equation. Does that change the equation? If we agree that it is okay, are we giving tacit approval to deadbeat fathers? If we agree that it's not okay, are we saying that all gay men should stay in the closet? Whatever we decide, what is to stop us from making other designations about who belongs together and who doesn't?

Spencer Tracy's Matt Drayton in Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner has to face the reality that his classroom liberalism isn't strong enough for him to fully accept his daughter--raised quite trustingly on his principles--marrying an actual black man. (Not at first.) It's Sidney Poitier, so the entire audience rolls its eyes. (I mean, come on!) Even more interestingly, however, Poitier's character, John Prentice, has to deal with his parents' reservations.

The line obviously doesn't have to end in bigotry. The point is: the issues are there and need to be addressed. Not every romance novel has time to tackle such issues completely, to explain why these dynamics are okay but those are not. However, I will maintain the following:
All romance writers should know their personal philosophy regarding acceptable versus non-acceptable relationships. Even if not addressed in the story, the writer's philosophy will become apparent through the writing.
The most basic definition of acceptable is a relationship of consent in which no one is harmed. Versus non-acceptable, a relationship lacking consent which involves harm.

Here's the complication: "consent" and "harm" don't mean the same thing to everyone. The writer will need to figure out what he or she means. How else can the writer's characters achieve a happy ending?