Still Thinking About Love, and Romance — Thanks, Miss Nehring

>> And still thinking about Cristina Nehring’s book. I’ve realized that this book deserves a long response. I just found it so rich — it has many things I agree with, some things I vehemently disagree with, and some things were just really cool to know about. Phenomena, attitudes, literary trivia. So, yes, I’ve been navel-gazing for a couple of days now. [See my first post on the things I wish Nehring had included in her book.]

"Consolation" - Raphael Soyer, 1959

Love stories have a bad reputation. I have discovered — firsthand and otherwise — that there’s not much respect for them, and this is palpable in the academe, and many writerly circles. Ah, the respect is reserved for this dignified loving, the glory and the angst — found mostly in classic literature. Nowadays though — and Nehring points this out — we’ve grown feeble in our exultations of lurve. Let me generalize, haha:

Writing about love, it’s difficult to pull off, and when it’s awesome, it just is: see My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro — but even here, as the anthology’s editor points out, “Love stories give love a bad name.” Not a lot of people even dare these days. And isn’t that telling? The love story/poem as dare, a challenge. Write at your own risk. This “You should’ve known better” attitude. And I remember the heckling that comes in poetry readings: “Hey, that’s a love poem!” As if it were a bad thing.

Let’s face it, you’re bound to fail. Love is a difficult emotion to capture. You run the risk of being overtly schmaltzy. Or being accused of being narrow-minded when it comes to love. Of focusing too much on happiness.

I’m not attacking the sadness that I feel — personally, really, and craft-wide — that is intrinsic in love. But, sometimes, we’re too focused on the sadness, on this misguided need to dignify love, that we’ve lost sight on love itself. On romance.

When a writing student puts forward his most earnest love story, flaws and all, it’s regarded off the bat as immature — the form alone, the very fact that it is about love is immature. Something only kids dwell on, because they don’t know better, and can’t write about other, “real” things. Grrr.

When I was seventeen, I was part of a writing workshop. And, yeah, I wrote love stories — but I didn’t call them that. I tried to restrain myself, not knowing much about love, but fascinated by it. I talked of love, and romance, and sex — and made sure that I didn’t go overboard with the happiness-aspect of it. My gut told me that it needed to be sad. Hell, out of three stories, one worked — that is, a majority liked this. And that one story was goddamned sad. Comments a workshop panelist made about my work, and it has stuck to me until now — “The writer is a girl captivated with the idea of love,” and the winner, “She’s just this girl enamored by sex.”

I took that badly for a couple of months. And then I called Bullshit. Hell yeah I am. I like people. I like how people fuck up in their relationships. I like how people deal with those fuck-ups. Mostly, basically, bottom-line: I like love. I like that it exists. I like its many intricacies, and its many darknesses. I like the happy parts most of all — but I’m not supposed to write about that, see, nope.

The love story, relegated to juvenilia: Last year, a poet, fictionist, and mentor to many Filipino writers today, declared that he had burned all his love poems. That made me sad. That also pissed me off — I read as a holier-than-thou nose-thumbing, especially from a writer who has declared, many a time, that love poems are Eww (I paraphrase, but you get the gist), and that no writer worth his salt writes about being in love after a certain point. [But ya know me, I had to think it sad that a poet in his twilight years burning all the love poems he’d written — three notebooks, if I remember correctly. Me and my sadnesses.]

You’re not supposed to write love stories. You’re supposed to be past that. You’re not supposed to dwell on all things heartache and heartbreak. Then again, you’re never to dwell on happy and sparkly. Damned if you do, damned if you do it in a reckless way, damned if you don’t. Dammit.

And if you’re intent on being damned, make sure there’s a distinction: This here’s literary writing. That there, not so much. Guess which is which, kids.

I’m trying to remember if I found the words, “I love you,” said earnestly and heartfelt, and just truthfully, by a character in a novel or a story that was written in the past decade — in “literary” literature. I’ve drawn a blank — but man, I just read Anne Stuart, and that was so welcome.

In “the real world,” something akin to shame comes with declaring that you read love stories. Oh, there’s a dignity, I suppose, in reading the old greats, the wretched and the lovelorn — love is glorious, love is wonderful, romance can get ye killed, but that’s awesomez! Yeah, I’ve grown certain that to celebrate love in literature, a balance is of the utmost importance: You want romance? Here’s some angst. And I actually like that. My problem is, I guess, is the now. The contemporary writers. I’m sick of love as satire, people. Seriously.

Reading something that actually celebrates love now? That’s supposed to be brain candy. The all-too-common reactions to romance novel, the writing and the reading of it. It’s frustrating, really. I go to romance because I want distraught. I want a guaranteed happy ending, and I want happy-sparkly on the way there.

It has to be sad. It’s not supposed to be about romance. Because, apparently, romance is bad writing. The more glorious side of love, the actual happy part of it — it’s not literary. Romance is bad sensibilities. Romance means you haven’t matured as a writer. Dwelling on being in love means you can’t put your craft above your all-too-personal emotions.

I call Bullshit, people.


  • One of these days, I’m going to write a love story that will bring the world to its knees — and damn it to hellfire if it’s not a story that celebrates romance. And I’m not even going to wait until I’m old and gray and full of sleep.
  • In a later post, I’ll try to make a list of love stories and love poetry — distraught, romantic, well-written, lovely! — that kick ass. And kick ass wonderfully. Then again, the problem I’m anticipating is finding a story that focuses on a celebratory kind of loving — then again, I know that love, no matter how glorious it can be, needs a nice helping of angst. [I’m looking at you, Roland Barthes. You too, Miss Bronte.] Which, again, does not mean that we all have to kill ourselves in the end. Bah, I’ve blabbed on too much.
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12 comments

  1. Do you ever think that maybe some people scoff at writing love stories and poems, not because they are juvenile in their outlook or material, but simply because of how vulnerable they make us? When we write about love, we write about the things we clutch closest to our chest, both our triumphs and our fears. To write effectively about love requires the same sacrifice required to be in love: we must open ourselves up truly and freely to another being and invite them to inhabit our space for a while and wriggle under our skin, nestle beneath our bones. I can’t think of anything more terrifying for a writer, because I can’t imagine anything more terrifying for a person!

    1. That’s a wonderful thought, Steph, and so beautifully said — and I know that a part of me likes reading the love story precisely because it makes me vulnerable. Talking about a love story, especially: How to say that you like this character because you find you love exactly like her? How to say that you like this character because he loves the way you want to be love? Often, I don’t. I keep it close, I sidestep. Barthes has made me go, “Yes, that’s exactly how I feel.” And if this is about pain, I am inclined to think about how anyone could write about it so well, and so truthfully.

      With writing, well, that requires bravery. Bravery, and an ever-present awareness of what’s intrinsically good, and well-written. It’s a difficult balance, basically just difficult. But, I guess, I want more people to take risks. To be braver. To say, “I am in love, and I need to write about it.” As with any piece of literature, it demands that this expression transcends the writer’s own experiences. But, again, to be able to give words to what many feel, based on what one feels so ruthlessly — I think that’s a wonderful thing.

  2. So you’re saying we should all read and write bad books about love and romance novels? This is a stupid post, very misguided. You’re still bitter about that comment when you were seventeen. Get over it. YOU ARE WAY TOO HUNG UP ON LOVE AND ROMANCE AND SEX. Jesus.

    1. Oh, please. Read the post before you whine about these things. It makes you look foolish.

  3. Very thought-provoking post, Sasha. I don’t totally agree, but it definitely got me thinking.

    So, in my experience people in contemporary fiction say “I love you” in a plain, heartfelt way quite often, a way we’re supposed to take seriously; or at the very least there is a valorization of the power of romantic relationships, sometimes in the face of great hardship. Books that leap to mind for me: Jose Saramago’s Blindness (the optometrist & his wife, and the old man & the girl with dark glasses); Peter Carey’s Oscar & Lucinda; Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy; Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home (Ames’s tender love for his young wife is so beautiful, and Jack’s relationship saves his sanity & self-respect); Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; Alice Walker’s The Color Purple; Ian McEwan’s Atonement (Cecilia & Robbie); many things by Haruki Murakami; many things by John Irving. In some of these (Seth, Walker, much of Irving) the romances “end” happily; in some (Carey, McEwan, Ishiguro) they end tragically, in others (Saramago, Robinson) the rubric of “happy” versus “unhappy” endings is kind of beside the point.

    So hmm. I’ve encountered this argument vis-a-vis romance novels & appreciation of romance before, and I kind of WANT to agree wholeheartedly, because I think there’s a very true point about how our culture devalues things thought of as “feminine” and valorizes things thought of as “masculine,” and romance is definitely thought of as feminine, hence the contempt for that genre, which I agree is unjust. But I can’t quite agree about a love-related anemia in the rest of the literary world…because I see a lot of romantic love and sexual love depicted in literary fiction. It’s just that literary fiction doesn’t share Romance’s semi-exclusive privileging of or focus on romantic love that ends happily, so it’s bound to include other kinds of relationships and other kinds of internal battles a greater percentage of the time. It has no mandate to provide a happy ending or bring the main character to a point of readiness for a romance, so yeah, a lot of the time it doesn’t. Sometimes it does. But obviously it’s going to be less of the time, percentage-wise, than in a genre where that is part of the basic blueprint. To me it’s unfair to conclude from that lower percentage that only sad or tragic love stories can be considered “literary.” It’s like complaining about the low prevalence of spaceships in fiction at large as compared to sci-fi.

  4. OK, and I now realize that I have a much wider definition of “contemporary” than you do – out of all those I listed, only the Ishigiuro, Robinson & McEwan meet your “in the last 10 years” criterion…oops. So I don’t read a lot of new fiction, so sue me! ;-)

  5. I don’t really write (when I /tried/ to, and failed epically, it was about love) but even just /liking/ books on love sometimes makes me feel like I shouldn’t. As if I should be half-ashamed I’m weak when it comes to stories about love. I’ve read (and not always enjoyed) trashy ones, chick-lits, and classics. When I was in high school, I had this friend who absolutely scoffed at any story with romance in it. Recently, a friend who saw my to-buy booklist with all these titles so obviously related to love seemed like he wanted to comment on my list (which may not necessarily be something negative, except I still felt like I had to explain why it was a list of books on love). It’s not the only theme I read but love is something that draws me in more than any other subject.

    So, I think I understand a bit of why you feel like this.

  6. Aye. Aye.

    I wrote a post a while back called The Romance Novel as a Drug. I think the the juvenile stereotyping of love stories stems from the conventions, cliches and rabid readership of the romance genre.

    I’m all for love, cheesy love, sad love (opening lines of Toni Morrison’s Jazz anyone?), happy love, stupid love. Bring it on. I just need it to be honest, no rules, no conventions, no generalizations.

    Great post.

  7. Amen.

    I don’t really read anything from the “Romance” section of bookstores, but we all have to admit that every story is a love story (the line’s cliché, I know, but it’s true).

  8. Joe Dimaggio · · Reply

    Naive, poorly written garbage. Love has been written about well, much like the other important aspects of every single human life. There can never be, however, such a thing as a good love story. Two people in love is not a story it has no narrative. Story’s require plots not simply emotions.

  9. Hey, everyone, thank you all for the comments in this post. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been reading Nehring’s book, and she’s raised several points that, well, left me thinking about a lot of things. Granted, I don’t agree wholeheartedly with what she’s saying, and how she says it, but she’s got balls to rally for romance.

    Anyway, this post, as well as the one that preceded it–and, I must assume, the ones that shall follow–are basically me trying to sort all this out. Nehring’s points have provoked me into verbalizing things I’ve long toyed with in my head. And so, well, thank you all for thinking about this with me.

    @Emily — Thanks for your lovely comment, I’ve brooded on it for days now. :] You know, I haven’t read any of the books that you mentioned, and I know this is enough of a push to get me to read them. And, well, I’ve been making a list of love stories that just blew me away–love stories that brought me to my knees–and, man, they’re all mostly bleak. I’ve come to realize, after this post, and with much help from all of you who’ve taken the time to comment–I’ve come to realize that perhaps, even though I’m drawn to the starry-eyed angst and happy thoughts romance novels afford me, I will always be enamored of sadness and ennui, and all the sigh-able things of love.

    I am so strange.

    Oh, and Joe? I felt it prudent to point out that as you completely miss the point, you’ve also proved a central theses of Nehring’s book. And, also, while I can only nod at your, “Love has been written about well,” I just so disagree with everything else you wrote, on so many levels. Let’s have at it, if you’re willing to stop yourself from descending to this snooty childishness.

  10. […] A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-first Century, by Christina Nehring. [Random Thoughts #01] [Random Thoughts #02] […]

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