Romance — what is it? And is it for Men?

I like to both write and read romance. There, I said it. It so happens that I rarely find romance that really appeals strongly to me, and I think that this is because the archetypal romance story has a dominance possessed of the archetype of perhaps no other genre. It is an archetype that has been appropriated and adapted, culturally and literarily, mostly for and by women. To put it another way, romance is seen as a women's genre. But is it?

I've written before on the meaning of the word erotica, but it was only once I started thinking about romance that I really found a definition of all three words that applies most of the time. This is what I suggest:

romance (in any context): a story about intimate human relationships that ends positively
erotica: stories or other materials intended to stimulate, titillate or excite which have (or are intended to have) this effect on all genders and sexual orientations
pornography: stories or other materials intended to provide sexual stimulation to a single gender of a single sexual orientation

Erotica is in its intent inclusive; porn is in its intent exclusive. Romance is not about sex. But it also isn't about love. Bear* with me a moment.

Romance is about a story. Like many stories, perhaps more than many, it is instantly familiar; it is composed of recognizable patterns and structures – situations, events, characters. Writing this paragraph I made three abortive attempts to outline an archetypal romance but it got too complex, and besides, it isn't necessary. You know when a story is a romance.

It is (is it? it seems to be) commonly thought in our culture that romance stories are a sort of wish-fulfillment for frustrated women. But that isn't the purpose of stories, neither in the reading, the writing nor the telling. Stories are there to help us to rehearse; they are a form of learning, and, therefore, a form of play**. And if such stories are about men and women surely they are for men and women?

The feminist literature (you will, I hope, excuse me for not looking up the references) suggests that when stories of romance are written for women, it is with the purpose of teaching them their role in a relationship. Certainly a great deal of C20 romance reinforces the idea that women should allow themselves to be passively defined and created by men. One thinks of the iconic image of the man taking off the woman's glasses before kissing her.

But this is one of those things that I think authors should be aware of: you can't just sit down and write a nice story about two people falling in love without someone deconstructing it as a treatise on gender politics. Which is rather why I want to put out the call for more romance for men.

Our culture applies romance differently, painfully unequally, to men and women. When we call a woman romantic, we mean to say that she believes in a sort of destiny of love; that one day her prince will come; that if she finds the right man for her they will live in loving bliss forever. When we call a man romantic, we mean to say that he is skilled in satisfying a woman's desire for romance. ***

This is a disservice to both women and men. I believe that someone who is romantic is someone who desires and enjoys romantic stories, and who wants to live them, and to share the creation of a romantic experience. To some extent, this agrees with the crude definition of the preceding paragraph, though without the passive/active gender stereotype. But I think it's a lot more.

Romance is an act of mutual creation, of complicity, in what two people believe an expression of their shared sentiment should be. Romance is a kind of shared definition of love between a couple.

I'm not ashamed to call myself romantic. However I think any man should be so ashamed if what he, and those around him, understand by this is that he is skilled in the art of manipulating women's desire for romance. When I call myself romantic I am declaring my own desire for romance as a shared experience.

Finally, this shared experience, this ritual, this theater is so intensely human that it can, it must and it does entirely transcend such petty distinctions as age, race, sex and gender preference. Romance is about two people making something together. Regardless of who or what the protagonists are, I will enjoy reading it because it is romantic.

* as in carry, not as in teddy
** as in recess, not as in Shakespeare
*** I read a story where the main protagonist, a young gay man, described his first experience of sex as: "I wanted romance, he just wanted sex"; it seems to presuppose that we can apply romance as a female gender stereotype safely to a gay man. But this is just as wrongheaded as the way it is applied to women.

No comments: