The Trouble With Modern Romance

Romantic SunSet by Yusri Abd Halim. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

The trouble with modern romance novels is that our culture sees no reason for two people who are in love not to be together. This significantly cuts down on the potential for conflict in the novel. In comparison, Jane Austen had it easy.

I’m going to use Jane Austen as an example for a second, since pretty much everybody knows she wrote romance novels in the 1800s, and I can hardly be blamed for “spoiling the ending” of any of her novels (if a book’s been around for two hundred years, its ending is fair game for discussion – proven by the fact most classic novels are prefaced by an essay by some English professor or another, in which every single plot point of the novel is discussed. Seriously, if you don’t want the novel spoiled, skip those essays. You might want to skip the next two paragraphs of this post too).

Anyway, let’s start with Jane Austen’s most famous – Pride and Prejudice. Central conflict at the end: Lydia runs off with the dastardly Wickham, and Elizabeth thinks Darcy will never want to be seen with her family again because of the shame. Nowadays most guys couldn’t care less who your sister runs off with, so not a major conflict. Also, a major obstacle between Darcy and Elizabeth is that they’re in different classes. In real life, of course, class still effects relationships, but most of us would prefer to pretend we live in a world that doesn’t emphasize social standing anymore – making class struggle a touchy thing to handle in the dream-world of romance novels.

Then take Sense and Sensibility. Central conflict: the man Elinor is in love with is secretly engaged to someone else. Goodness, think of a reason that would cause someone nowadays to keep an engagement secret for four years (far longer than the guy was in love with the girl, too). I used to wonder why there were no modern versions of Sense and Sensibility, like there are of Pride and Prejudice, until I realized how hard the plot would be to update. And then take Northanger Abbey – the hero’s father forbids the match and throws the heroine out of his house. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is considered too lowly for Anne Elliot, and she’s persuaded to drop him by her father and her friend. Parents nowadays only wish they had that much influence over their children!!!

Jane Austen got her pick between secret engagements, class struggles, lack of fortune, parental disapproval… all valid reasons in Jane Austen’s day, but harder to make plausible now. A couple in a book or movie can meet cute, hang out, start kissing, and spent the night together before the end of a scene… and where does the story go from that? An “unexplained past” is the cliché solution, though the secret is never shocking enough to deserve being kept secret (because, of course, if the secret past is truly horrible, how will the main character ever be sympathetic? Seriously, the hero’s secret in the last novel I read was that once he’d illustrated romance novels in his spare time.) The other solution is jealousy of past girlfriends/boyfriends, co-workers, etc., which is tiresome and either makes one character look insecure, or makes the other look like a cad.

Which possibly is the reason for the multitudes of anemic chick flicks or novels where the whole plot could be solved in five minutes if the guy and the girl just talked to each other! No other option for conflict, so let’s just make them not talk. Which makes absolutely no sense – if the basis of a good relationship is good communication, how is the reader supposed to believe this couple’s going to last five minutes after “The End,” when they spent the whole time not communicating?

So in modern romance, where’s the conflict? No one’s stopping the couple from getting drunk and running to Vegas, except the couple themselves.

 Maybe that’s the key – the couple themselves. My guess is that romance novels have shifted from external conflict imposed by society, parents, lack of finances and so on, to internal conflict created by the people in the relationship. Certain aspects of character WILL create conflict, and make a good novel. Certain values of hero/heroine may delay progress of relationship, or past experiences may affect it. But a novel needs incredibly strong characterization to pull this off.

No wonder so many romance novels fail then – characterization is a tough thing to pull off. I’m not sure I succeed at it either. But it’s something to aim for.

What do you think – have changes in society made it harder to write romances, or easier?

 

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23 Comments

Filed under Jane Austen, On Writing, True Romance

23 responses to “The Trouble With Modern Romance

  1. Alexia

    I’m always skipping those essays since I read Tom Sawyer. Just the first page ruined the end.

    That’s probably why so many people are into vampire/human romances, cause they’re looking for that difficulty in a relationship. Human/werewolf too.

    I can see some conflicts that would work in a modern relationship though. Religion can be one, especially for the parents. There was a movie here about it, it was called “Il reste du jambon ?” (“Is there ham left ?” – I swear I didn’t make that up). The movie was terrible, but the idea was to have a muslim guy and a catholic girl dating and to watch the reactions of the families. As the movie progressed, you could see that even if the original pressure came from their families, eventually they realized that there was incomprehension between the two of them too.

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    • Yes, maybe that’s the explanation for the popularity of Twilight, etc!

      Religion is a good area for conflict, which I think could be explored more. Nowadays there’s far more opportunity for people of different religions and beliefs to date or marry than there used to be, and often different religions just aren’t compatible. The plot of that movie sounds interesting, but I’ll trust your opinion that it was terrible 🙂

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  2. Alexia

    I think it’s as good an explanation as any. Some fans think of Bella and Edward as the new “Romeo and Juliet” (hum)…

    Oh yes the plot was interesting, and some scenes in the movie were nice and realistic, but I thought the end was rushed. They get back together, but none of their problems is really solved. It feels like the writer didn’t know what to do with them anymore and just, you know, skipped to the end.

    I just thought of a book that fits the “internal conflict” situation, but it’s a little more violent than just illustrating romance novels (what was that book ?). It’s called “Hell” (no translation, it’s the actual french title – and the name of the narrator) by Lolita Pille and it’s probably one of the few books I read over and over when I was a teenager. It’s a self-destructive love, and I’m not sure I speak enough english to really describe it. It’s about beauty and despair, and about the fact that the one person you love can be the one you take down with you. They love each other but they are similar. And that “mirror” breaks. It’s a very crude, cynical and shocking novel.

    And there you have it : another essay. And because being off-topic obviously doesn’t scare me, I just watched a 9/11 documentary and I feel really depressed now.

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    • The author of Twilight herself, I think, describes Edward and Bella as Romeo and Juliet. I suppose it’s somewhat accurate, since Romeo and Juliet spent their whole story moaning about their love too. But I think I enjoy Romeo and Juliet more…
      Yes, a rushed ending can spoil a decent movie or book that was just developing nicely.
      Yes, love can be a destructive emotion as well as a beautiful one. The fact there is an ugly side to love kind of depresses me, but I suppose in this world there’s a bad side to everything…
      It is almost the 9/11 anniversary. Seems like it just happened, but it was 10 years ago.

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  3. Alexia

    The author of Twilight should learn a little about modesty if that’s what she thinks… Plus, Romeo and Juliet die in the end. No such luck with Bella and Edward… (Yes I’ve read the books, and yes I liked it, but I don’t really agree with the all “masterpiece” reputation those books are getting right now)
    I’m not sure it’s a “bad” side. I associate love and pain, for me if you love someone you fight. Last time I loved someone, we nearly destroyed each other but maybe that’s the beauty of it, that there’s no love without passion…

    I know, it feels so weird to realize it has been ten years already.

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    • According to Wikipedia, each book of Twilight is based on a different literary classic: 1) Pride and Prejudice (I don’t see the resemblance), 2) Romeo and Juliet, 3) Wuthering Heights 4) A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sigh… I don’t agree with “masterpiece” either, though I don’t deny I read them all.

      If you love someone you fight, I can see how love and pain are associated, but I don’t think it has to be that way – that you can have love and passion without pain. Excuse me, because I don’t exactly have personal experience with this. But from what I know about love, it means be willing to give yourself up for the good of the other person, and ideally the person you love is willing to do the same for you (to be more precise, by “bad side” I mean it doesn’t live up to this ideal…)

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  4. etch

    It seems to me from your essay and fanfic chapter, that in Jane Austen’s time the reasons for conflict between lovers were based on the controls and expectations society exerted on them. As you put it, “secret engagements, class struggles, lack of fortune, parental disapproval”. In modern North American capitalist and democratic society where such pressures are lessened, you wrote of how conflict might be derived from characterization instead. I see a potential demonstration of this in the chapter you wrote, describing the generous landlord and the energetic lady. Though the man knows her faults, he is consolled by the way she takes good advice for improvement. The internal consideration of her character could create conflict for the guy.

    I have little knowledge of romance novels, but I agree with your guess. Conflict must come from the couples’ internal conflicts, rather than conflict with society. In place of the way societal influence created conflict, there is now a possibility for personal freedom to create conflict. Women can now vote, pursue advanced education, climb the corporate ladder, and travel the world. Such dreams or goals could get in the way marriage, and discourage courtship.

    In my opinion, society once saw members of the fairer species as either; not-yet-a-mother, a mother, or a grandmother. The purpose of their existence was propagation of the human race, raising children etc., and males were the organisers and supporters of the human race. With women no longer depending on men to survive, perhaps romance is no longer such a risk, as indepedence is easily reaquired. The careful consideration of socio-economic implications is no longer as important, and thus, as you phrased it, “A couple in a book or movie can meet cute, hang out, start kissing, and spent the night together before the end of a scene”.

    Lower moral standards are also key to the above. I agree society also has these lower moral standards and expectaions in contemporary times then what society had in Jane Austen’s. “No one’s stopping the couple from getting drunk and running to Vegas, except the couple themselves.” This change from then to now I think is the lack of strict obligation to a religion. Being Christian in Britain was once law, and in many middle eastern contries it is law to be Islamic. Christians would find fornication a horrendous sin, and Muslims would equally despise it. Divorce is also fundamentally opposed to these religions. North America as it stands does not hold strict cultural obligations to Christianity/Islam, and so I think personal freedom can become a sort of new religion, resulting in such options as fornication and divorce.

    Modern romance must then find conflict in each personal choice, value, and goal. The characters themselves must conflict with each other, even if their relationship is not self-destructive, as Alexia describes the conflict in the book “Hell”, but rather self-denying.

    I think with more freedom in society, so the values and goals in it can be more varying, so a value-based conflict becomes easier in this age, making it just as easy, in my opinion, to write a romance novel in our time, based on internal conflict, as it was in Jane Austen’s time to write about external conflict.

    Like I said, I havn’t much knowledge of romance novels, but I enjoyed your thoughts, and also sharing mine.

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    • Thanks for joining the conversation!
      I agree with you that some of the specific changes you mention have led to changes in the structure of romance novels – the fact women don’t necessarily have to find a man who can “support” them, the lower moral standards, more variety of religions, etc. This definitely leads to conflicting values. Being a Christian, the way I think about some of these issues does affect my values and relationships with others, so I can see how a good story could come out of it.
      I believe love should be self-denying, as you say, but it is a struggle. A good romance novel could look at this process. Maybe it is just as easy to write romance novels with value-based conflicts as it was for Jane Austen to write about external conflict – maybe I’m just complaining that novels are hard to write! Something to think about, anyway.

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  5. Alexia

    Please I don’t want to associate in my mind Wuthering Heights (one of my favorite books – I guess that explains my conception of love) and Twilight 3 – sorry, I can never remember the order of the english titles. Here they’re called Fascination, Tentation, Hésitation, and Révélation, which has… nothing to do with the original titles, but go figure.
    Also, I have to say, I read “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I don’t see the ressemblance. Except if you consider that both of the authors must have been high when they were writing it (just kidding).
    And I’ve read the Twilight series too, even if it took me forever to open the 2nd book.

    I think a girl with strong religious values meeting a guy with, hum, none could be an interesting plot. So I guess religion is the modern “class struggle”. Even if class struggle could still be a problem too…

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    • I have no idea how “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” relates either… except there’s no war in either (seriously, all of the last book of the Twilight series builds up to this huge battle that never happens, which I found strange).
      I think the fact you like “Wuthering Heights” probably explains the difference between us quite clearly – since I never was able to get into it. Though I did finish, and was proud of myself!
      Thinking about it more, I think class struggle could still be a problem, but in a different way, since we like to pretend we’ve advanced as society, but there’s still inequality. It also depends where in the world you set your novel!
      I’d be interested in that plot too… maybe have to write it myself eventually… though I’d certainly be coming from a certain perspective on that one.

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  6. Alexia

    I forgot to answer earlier, but I get why people don’t always get into Wuthering Heights. It’s a very strange atmosphere, and a lot of people are surprised, especially when they’ve read Charlotte Brontë before Emily. But I love this book, and like most of my favorite books, I can’t explain why. Even in my own language.
    You should totally write it. It’s funny, in North America religion seems so present that I don’t see strong moral values be an issue – except if the other half of the couple doesn’t believe in it. But here, for my generation, honestly… people make it feel like it’s a shame if you’re still a virgin when you’re 17, and if you’re courageous enough to talk about believing in God they’ll think you’re nuts…

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    • etch

      Clearly the people of your generation have never read the Song of Solomon.

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    • What surprised me about Wuthering Heights is that everyone describes it as this great romance, and says they want to meet a guy like Heathcliff. When I read it, I didn’t want to meet a guy like Heathcliff, ever. I can’t imagine falling in love with him. So my expectations of the book were totally different than what the book turned out to be. I could try read it again though. 🙂
      I suppose North America is more open to talking about religion, but you still meet people who think you’re nuts if you talk about religion, or if you’re a virgin at 17 (or 24, for that matter…) I guess you just have to know why you believe what you do. French culture is more different than I thought, then 🙂

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  7. Alexia

    Hum Toni Morrison is not that popular here, I don’t really know someone my age who read her books, my generation is more into Frederic Begbeider and his “Short stories on ecstasy” =)

    Yes, it would be surprising. I didn’t really have that image of the book, so maybe that’s why I loved it so much. I lend it to a friend once, and she couldn’t get past the first chapter cause it’s a weird book, and she was expecting something Twilight-like I guess.
    Yeah, I suppose it is. But there’s still people who believe in God, I guess it’s just considered weird and uncool when you’re young. Kind of like virginity. Plus, there’s a law against religious symbols (like jewelry) at school. I think the difference is there : here, religion is a private matter, but in North America – especially in the USA actually, I don’t know about Canada – it seems like it’s everywhere. I mean, there’s always a scandal about some shocking scene from a tv show or some cover of magazine. By the way is anti-abortion that strong in North America ? It always seems like a major conflict from here, but I don’t know, it always felt to me like maybe it was exagerated.

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    • I automatically assumed “etch” meant Song of Solomon in the Bible (also known as Song of Songs). I didn’t realize Toni Morrison wrote a book by that name. But now I’m not sure what he meant…

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      • In response to the rest of your post, Canada is different from the USA in that religion is more of a private thing for most people here too (though I’d imagine it’s more so in France). For example, after 9/11 the US president prayed while the Canadian Prime Minister didn’t mention God at all. In some ways I don’t agree with the American system and how it misuses religion – like having to act like you are a religious person in order to be voted in (leading to hypocrisy when everyone finds out the politician was only pretending). But with the Canadian system – I don’t think religion can be kept private and separate. What I believe affects the way I think, and what I think is important, and so it affects politics, my education, and everything about my daily life. So I don’t think trying not to talk about it is the answer at all.
        In regards to “anti-abortion” (or “pro-life” as they’re called, since they do more than just stand against abortion), it is a really, really strong disagreement in the North America. More so in the States, since most Canadians would like to ignore the whole issue. For the record, I am pro-life myself. 🙂
        Any other commenters with insight into the whole Canada/States differences, feel free to jump in the conversation…

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  8. Alexia

    Ah. Sorry about that, I had no idea there was a Song of Solomon in the Bible. I am a Bible ignorant.

    I guess you’re right, but I’m not sure religion and politics are a good combinaison…
    You know, I do respect the fact that you’re pro-life, but I have to say, here in France it’s sort of shocking if someone is against abortion. I mean, yes, in the 70’s, there were a lot of protests, but now ? Simone Veil, the woman who helped legalize abortion in 1975, is such a figure these days that it probably means the French mostly accepted it. Jean-Marie Le Pen (I told you about him, I think) is against abortion, I think he’s one of the only people I’ve heard talking about a genocide when it comes to abortion. It shocks everyone. Especially the socialists (by the way Dominique Strauss-Kahn gave his first interview to the news, and I nearly smashed my tv). For the record, I’m not exactly clear on my feelings on the subject. In Brazil, apparently abortion is only legal for rape victims… I don’t know if you’ve heard of it but there’s a nine-year-old girl there who got an abortion after being rape by her step-father (apparently since she was six). It’s her mom who took her there, and she was excommunicated by the Catholic church, along with the doctors who performed the operation. However, her step-father is still a good Catholic, because, as the (??) archévêque (I can’t find the translation – it’s like a priest but higher on the food chain) put it, “abortion is worse than rape”. As a woman, I want to say : seriously ?! Actually that’s not what I wanted to say but I’ll stay polite =)

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    • I agree with you completely – abortion is not worse than rape. (I don’t believe you can arrange wrong things in order of bad, worse, worst, etc.) Rape, and abuse like that, is a terrible, terrible thing. I say this not just as a woman, but as a Christian too. I believe God hates this kind of evil.
      I do remember hearing about that news story. I’m not entirely clear on Roman Catholic theology, but I believe they say the purpose of excommunication is to encourage people to repent and have a good relationship with the church again. So I’m guessing they’d say this was to help those people who were excommunicated? Oh wow, I feel bad making wild conjectures at Catholic theology. I’m not sure how they made decisions on excommunications (and why not the father), or anything like that. I would hope the father is held responsible, and punished.
      I think archévêque = Cardinal??? or Bishop.
      I do think these issues are worth thinking about, and discussing. For most people I know who are pro-life, they believe a new, different life is started the moment a sperm and egg come together… and if you believe taking another life is wrong, then it follows you are against abortion. Also, if you are a Christian you believe every life is valuable to God, which explains why pro-lifers are often Christian.

      To change the subject again (sorry for going on so long!), I think religion and politics would work better if everyone was honest about what they believe, but I suppose that’s too much to ask of politicians…
      And as for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, I don’t think I could stand watching his interview either.

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      • Ooooooo, with the death penalty you’ve brought up a subject I should really learn more about. I know people for and against, but I should really research it a bit. A few things that come to my mind though… Punishing someone who has killed another person (a murderer) is different than ending the life of a person who hasn’t had a chance to do anything good or bad (someone not yet born). In addition, Christians believe God has given the government the responsibility of upholding justice, which means they should punish those that do wrong. (Rom 13:4: “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”)
        Yes, you may’ve heard this argument against abortions before. Good to hear your thoughts. I understand not everyone wants to be a mother unexpectedly, but it doesn’t seem fair another human has to pay with their life because of it.
        But I have to agree with you that I think the father probably should’ve been excommunicated too. A church which tries to follow Christ should establish justice and not protect wrongdoers. But since I really don’t have all the information about what exactly happened, I don’t want to be too harsh towards the Roman Catholic church. It just – doesn’t look like they were completely in the right.

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  9. etch

    Totally meant Song of Songs from the Bible. I don’t really understand most of this book. It would actually be easy to miss the value of virginity in this book, my comment exagerates. Verses like 4:12 or 8:6 I think take a position on it though.

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  10. Alexia

    I don’t really know about their theology either, but in this case I would have excommunicated the father too… It’s not like that poor kid had a choice, I don’t think she would have survived giving birth to twins !
    Yes, I do understand that, and actually there’s this journalist that said once that he was shocked by the slogan “My body belongs to me” (Mon corps m’appartient) because he believes there’s a bigger plan at work than just ownership on your body. Of course, he got into a huge argument with everyone on the set, but I don’t know, maybe he has a point. I’ve never known where to stand on the matter. I mean, yes I’m probably pro-abortion, but sometimes… There’s this girl I know, she must have had three of thoses, I just want to yell “wear a condom” to her face. But she won’t, cause she doesn’t like it, and I don’t know, I think if you don’t want a baby you shouldn’t tell yourself there’s always abortion as birth control. It should be more meaningful than that. But I get that if you don’t want kids you shouldn’t be forced into motherhood. Not everyone is meant to be a parent.

    By the way, I guess this means you’re against death penalty too ?

    Maybe, but you know politics are always on campaign, so it makes it difficult to speak the truth!
    Yeah, I shouldn’t have watched it. First of all, the journalist is a good friend of Strauss-Kahn’s wife, so he was sure she wouldn’t ask questions that weren’t fully prepared. The whole thing just seemed fake and insincere, but everyone saw it coming !

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  11. Pingback: Harder to Write Romance Than Criticize It | Stories and Stuff

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