For several years now, I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter about YA romance, as if the whole idea of romance is undesirable. Romance has become that thing, the guilty pleasure that no one wants to admit they like and some people flat out hate. Romance, and particularly Young Adult romance, has become something that authors feel they should kill, like Romeo when he believes Juliet is dead and drinks the poison. Many reviewers have embraced the haters stance on romantic plot lines with a vengeance, finding little to say that is good about a novel that includes any romantic thread.
At conferences, I’ve heard editors say they were “over” romance, and that it was time to move on. Teen readers, these editors argue, should aspire to do more than read about characters who have nothing better to do than look for fulfillment in someone else. Modern characters should be above romance. They should be embracing their real destinies, the ones that center solely and completely on them, without the sloppy sentiment of a Hallmark movie. The modern girl (even if she exists in a fantasy world from some long ago time period) should be focused on herself, on developing her own talents and being all that she can be. She doesn’t need a brooding YA hero, and she doesn’t need to be distracted from her destiny by the weakness of romantic love.
And I get where the haters of romance are coming from. Romance in the real world may not be dead, but it’s kind of like some lizard that got caught in the Arizona sun too long and is slowly shriveling up. In an age of hook-up culture and reality tv shows where people vie to win the heart of someone they’ve never met and, mathematically speaking, couldn’t possibly be within cosmic destiny of, it’s easy to lose sight of the joy of romance.
There is also a legitimate claim to be made that none of us needs some “other” to complete us. We are, each of us, capable of being enough all on our own and we should never lose sight of that, even when we do fall in love. Love should not be something that stunts our growth or our exploration of who we are as an individual.
Romance in the Modern Age
Despite these drawbacks, or even death knells, for romance, it keeps coming back though. It turns out that love is more like the the terminator than like the Juliet who sacrifices herself on the dagger of her deceased husband. When I first heard editors bemoaning the “overdone to death” lament of romance in YA books, I felt really discouraged. I love romance. I get that it may not be real, at least not in any long-lasting temporal sense, but all of the best things in life somehow involve love. There are all kinds of love, and each of them has their own romantic language: the way a mother looks at her child; the way you smile when you think of your best friend when you need her most; the need you have, even as an adult, to look up to your parents. All of these forms of love have a romance of sorts in them, even if they are without sexual tension. Love is the most complicated and intricate of our emotions, and it is ever changing. The love you have for the infant in your arms is not the love you carry for your child away at college. It changes, morphs, grows. It is the one constant that we need to grab onto if we are to actually, truly participate in this thing called life.
So the idea that we shouldn’t have romantic plot lines in our stories depressed me. I was talking about this to a friend of mine from Lesley who had recently taken on a job as a reader for a successful literary agent who represents a lot of YA authors. My friend laughed. “Don’t believe it,” she said. “Romance isn’t dead no matter what they say. The majority of the projects we take on have a romantic story line to them.”
This made me question why? Why if everyone is hating on romance are agents and editors still acquiring it? It seems to me that there can only be two possible answers to this question: either there is still a market for it or the agents and editors haven’t yet figured out that the market for it is dead.
The Fault in Our Stars
The answer, if we look at what titles are making the blockbuster lists and being turned into movies, is that romance isn’t dead at all. From John Green’s The Fault in our Stars to Veronica Roth’s Divergent series to Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything, romance is popular. Romance sells. YA romance is hot.
So why is romance so hot when there are so many haters of it, so many who dismiss books with romance plot lines? Why, despite the fact that many of us are shamed into pretending we don’t actually like romance is it still selling?
I think it’s because romance is the best and brightest fairy tale. The idea that we are not alone, that there is someone else out there who could know us intimately and still think we are not only worthwhile but a beautiful soul, is an ideal that is embedded in the human heart. Like mythology, romantic love represents a type of transcendence from the ordinary of our lives. It grants us a kind of eternal youth, a wanderlust, a hope for the future. It represents us in our most validated form-as someone worthy of the respect and love of someone we respect and love.
The Eternal Jane Austen
I was sixteen the first time I fell in love with Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. I was ready to take him the first time he asked, but then I knew that Elizabeth was being harder on him than he deserved. Still, Lizzie was right in holding out, because it was the holding out that fixed the one flaw Mr. Darcy had-his abominable pride. Of course, Lizzie had her own pride to get over and I could spend an entire post talking about the feminism of Jane Austen-both its subversive genius and its imaginative drawbacks. The important thing here is that I am not alone. Jane Austen remains the quintessential romance writer two hundred years after her death because she taps into the very core of what matters in romance-the ideal of the match of two souls that are uniquely compatible in temperament, intelligence, and ethics. Surely, if there is a recipe for a happy marriage, Jane Austen is the Julia Child of premarital counseling, despite never having been married herself.
So we beat on, boats against the current as Fitzgerald tells us in the failed romance of Jay Gatsby because romance isn’t dead. Even in the tragedy, romance is alive and well (did I mention The Fault in Our Stars?) It is alive and well and sitting at our fingertips any time we wish to read it. And I believe that teens, more than any of us, can relate to these stories because romance for them hasn’t become cliché. Romance for them is still a shiny new experience that is filled with possibilities. For their sake as well as my own, I can only hope that YA literature never runs out of brooding heroes and lovelorn teens.