Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Romantic or Not Romantic?

Carrying on from my last post about what is, or isn't romantic, here are two short stories which raise similar questions.

In Denise Rossetti's A Creature of Habit the hero, Colin, knows that

The young women in the office regarded him with affectionate contempt. He knew he didn’t enter their calculations - the spectacles, the bald spot - a man who was too fussy, too flabby, too close to fifty.
Denise says that this 'strange little story was born of my belief that there's someone for everyone - and I mean everyone!'. See what you think.

Alison Stuart's Romance and the Single Girl has a meta-romance angle to it. It begins with the heroine, Sarah, reading a romance novel (though she denies her interest when her friend Julie scornfully refers to it as 'this rubbish'). Sarah wants to find romance; Julie thinks men are 'only after one thing'. Researchers for Harlequin's 2007 Romance Report found that 'The vast majority of men (92%) and women (94%) consider themselves at least somewhat romantic' but, all the same,
Sometimes the motivation behind a romantic gesture is less noble than we might hope: those tickets to your favorite ballet or that limited edition baseball card come with an unsaid expectation or a not-so subtle desire for… (surprise, surprise)… SEX. According to our survey results, nearly two out of three men (62%) and more than two in five women (44%) have done something special for someone they were dating because they hoped it would lead to sex.
That's not exactly what happens in this story, but nonetheless, events will perhaps cause both of them to have something of a change of attitude.


  1. I would be curious to know the sampling and data collection procedures on that study (62% versus 44%... I would have expected both numbers to be in the 60s). As I have discussed in some of my Posts, I wonder if the gender-different results found in survey research actually reveal gender differences in the phenomenon or that men and women merely differ in what they report and reveal in surveys? (And that question, in and of itself, would be a difficult question to study... interesting question though!)

  2. According to Harlequin 'Almost three-quarters of women (71%) have bought sexy lingerie or sex toys because they thought it would lead to sex' so I'm not sure how they got to the lower figure of 44%. Maybe they didn't include that as a behaviour which counted as 'doing something special for someone they were dating'?

    The types of behaviours they report do seem to reflect cultural attitudes to gender roles i.e. I doubt it's biology which determines that women buy special lingerie and 'are more likely than men to have prepared a special meal for someone they are dating in the hope that it would lead to sex', whereas 'More than half of men (52%) bought someone they were dating an expensive gift because they hoped it would lead to sex, compared with only 23% of women'.

    [All these quotations are from page 6 of the report.]

  3. Thanks Laura for the specifics. I still maintain that there are some sampling issues (which the report does not deny), but with a +/- 3% error rate (p.less than .05)... not bad. Some of the other data are also very interesting.

  4. I just like the idea that in both these stories the characters end up with the person/character who suits them emotionally rather than the traditionally attractive 'tall dark and handsome' or 'cute curvy and can cook' mate that most hero/heroines seem to end up with whether they deserve them or not.

    As a reader I want to be left with the understanding that the relationship will last over time (the romantic happy ever after scenario) and am much more likely to find that (and therefore a satisfying end to the book) when the hero and heroine are mental and emotional equals rather than just because the hero has a large... err... wallet.

    Many times I finish a book feeling frustrated because, either subliminally or overtly, I know that as the h/h walk off into the sunset they'll reach the divorce court or Oprah's couch long before they get to Nirvana.

    If he's a billionaire businessman/Prince/Sheik/Cop/damaged war hero he'll get sick of rescuing/pandering to/sharing the twitty twerp/Princess/glamorous model/poor but honest prositute he married/shagged/had a baby with/saved from the death adder and take of with his secretary/partner/best friend's brother while she'll resent the time he spends on business/with his subjects/creative accountant/drug dealer so she'll spend more time with the pool man/her subjects/papparazzi than her husband.

    Not all books are like this of course (thank heavens), it's just annoying when an otherwise great story ends like that.


  5. I just like the idea that in both these stories the characters end up with the person/character who suits them emotionally rather than the traditionally attractive [...] mate that most hero/heroines seem to end up with

    That's exactly what I liked about these two stories too, Mazz. So yes, superficially, they're less 'romantic' but underneath that, what we're being offered are characters who really suit each other. As you say, great sex and a mutual admiration of each other's physical attributes isn't going to be enough to keep a couple together in the long term.

    And on the question of what's 'romantic' I like the way that in these stories the mundane/prosaic is transformed by love, so that although to others it might seem boring/plain/odd/imperfect, for these lovers it becomes right and beautiful. Not so much because 'love is blind' (in the sense that it can be blinded by lust/infatuation) but because 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' and the lover doesn't have to judge the beloved according to conventional criteria. Which, I think, gives hope to all of us who might think ourselves a bit lacking if judged against contemporary standards of beauty/attractiveness or a bit 'unromantic' as measured on the candlelit-dinners-red-roses-and-moonlight scale.

  6. I totally agree with Mazz. Those were beautiful stories; thank you for sharing them!

    And, seriously, the hero's kindness to the heroine on the park bench after the Secret Santa humiliation in "A Creature of Habit" felt sweeter to me and more important than a lot of muscular-hero-repels-down-from-a-helicopter-amid-a-rain-of-bullets scenes I've read. Because little kindnesses like that? Those are, in my experience, the stuff that life is made of. Moments of caring and humanity like that, platonic and otherwise, have saved my life. Sometimes I imagine that, by creating really dramatic, thrilling situations, Romance writers are trying to convey the actual importance of little moments like that.

  7. I'm glad you liked them, Angel.

    Sometimes I imagine that, by creating really dramatic, thrilling situations, Romance writers are trying to convey the actual importance of little moments like that.

    That's an interesting idea. There are definitely some things in romance novels that can be interpreted metaphorically/as metafictional devices, so this could be another. I wonder if it's in any way comparable to the way in which, in the past, a glimpse of an ankle might have been considered erotic, or the description of a kiss might have been considered the height of sexual tension for a reader who had only read these texts, whereas nowadays we're often exposed to far more explicit images and novels, which perhaps have a relatively similar effect on the reader who's used to more explicit texts/images. That's not exactly what you're saying, but I suspect that some readers might need big gestures in a novel in order to create the same impact that an apparently small gesture might have in real life.

    Although it could be argued that the constant portrayal of these 'big' romantic gestures might work to devalue the 'small' romantic gestures both in fiction and in real life. Hmm. Complicated. And the effects on readers and the intentions of authors probably vary from one individual to another.

  8. I'm so delighted that you chose to mention my story. Thank you!

    I've always had a great fondness for Colin and Alice simply because they are so "ordinary", so prosaic - like me, and like most of us reading this, I imagine. Yet this doesn't mean that magical moments don't and can't occur in our lives. After all, happy marriages exist everywhere. There are plenty in my family and no one involved has steely thighs or particularly lustrous tresses. (That I've noticed, anyway!)

    It seems to me that reader expectation is a crucial factor. When I submitted "A Creature of Habit" in a romance short story contest, the judges panned it. "Not romantic enough," they said, followed by the clincher - "lacking emotional punch."

    Oh dear.

    Funnily enough, now I write erotic romance and it's all about the fantasy. Impossibly gorgeous men and fabulous sex. But the key is believable characters with believable emotions. Because it's still a romance. And to me, it is most erotic when the hero shows the heroine he cares with some act of nurturing or kindness.

    So that the "small gesture" you refer to can have enormous significance, especially when contrasted with the "big gesture" of sexual expertise. Because it demonstrates love rather than simply lust.


  9. Thanks for coming and commenting, Denise, and even more thanks for putting the story up so that we could all read it!

    It seems to me that reader expectation is a crucial factor

    I agree completely. There are lots of things that readers expect from a romance (especially the happy ending, but also other things), and others which are 'hot button' issues for many of them and which they may very well not accept or expect (e.g. adultery on the part of the hero or heroine) or which are very strong preferences (e.g. around beauty, or what they think makes a novel romantic).

    I think the responses to your story and Alison Stuart's do demonstrate that there are some readers who appreciate this type of story, even if we're not in the majority.

  10. As the author of "Romance and the Single Girl" I would like to thank you, Laura, for sharing my story. You and your readers have hit at the heart of the story. I wanted to show that "romance" is found in unexepected places; that the changing of a washer on a tap, or the tightening of a light bulb can be just as much a romantic gesture as roses and chocolates.

  11. Thanks for the comment, Alison. I'm so glad you think we understood the 'heart of the story'. And thank you very much for putting the story up on your website so we could read it.