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We Need More Books Without Romance

5 March 2018

From Electric Lit:

The genius of the Bechdel test is that it doesn’t sound like a challenge. How difficult can it be to write a movie with two named female characters who talk to each other, just once, about something that isn’t a man? Clearly, though, it’s more rare than it sounds. You really have to think to come up with examples of movies that pass the test — and it’s only when we’re forced to provide them that we realize it shouldn’t be this hard.

Such was my experience brainstorming novels without romantic subplots. In January, “Tired Asexual” wrote to Slate advice columnist Dear Prudence, looking for suggestions of books that didn’t include the pursuit of romance. Helpful readers responded with a short list, many from young-adult fiction, but, surely, the list of eligible novels had to be much longer.

. . . .

For my own test, I developed the following criteria:

  1. The novel is not young adult fiction or science-fiction/fantasy. (There are plenty of YA books without romantic subplots, both because intended readers are younger and because recent YA authors are more likely to incorporate characters along the sexuality spectrum.)
  2. The novel is not “about” romance, and romance — or yearning for romance — isn’t a major plot point even if it’s there. So, maybe there’s a couple, but their relationship is taken for granted and the book doesn’t focus on its evolution. Maybe someone goes on a date, but dating doesn’t move the story forward.
  3. The novel has no explicit sex scenes or sexual themes (including sexual assault, even if it’s not described).
  4. The novel doesn’t present romantic love as necessary and central to flourishing. This last requirement is crucial. Even if there are no sex scenes and nobody goes on a date, if the main character is constantly thinking about how he should be dating or what a loser he is without a romantic partner, the novel is disqualified.

Go ahead, see what you come up with.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

For the record, PG is in favor of romance and romance novels.

That said, he does not require romance in books he reads. There is little romance in accounts of the battle of Iwo Jima or the invasion of Gallipoli and even less romance in Title 17 of the United States Code.


40 Comments to “We Need More Books Without Romance”

  1. Yeah, fine. They can go ahead and write (and read) all the non-romancey books they want. Enjoy.

    But that’s not me. That’s like anti-me. I like and want romance in my books, be they thrillers/mysteries (like SILENT JOE, where the romance added oodles to the great story or THE BONE COLLECTOR) or sci-fi (like my fave DUNE where the romance added to a great story), or classic (like my fave JANE EYRE, where romance is pretty darn essential) or fantasy (like my fave THE CURSE OF CHALION where the romance..well, you get my drift.)

    I know few people in life who don’t want romance/love in their lives or who don’t consider their committed love relationship (married or otherwise) to be a priority–or pretty darn high on the list– for happiness. My life would suck without hubby’s enchanting devotion and smoochies. For me, romantic love is utterly necessary for MY flourishing. Others’ mileages vary, no doubt. But that’s how *I* drive.

    I don’t read war books and avoid most war films, so PG’s examples (Iwo Jima, Gallipoli) don’t apply to me.

    Vive l’ amour.

    • I agree with a lot of what the OP says, in general, but I take issue with her claim that the prevalence of romance in fiction is “a problem” because that smacks of, “Stop writing what you want to write and write what I want you to write because there’s something wrong with society and this is how I’m going to fix it, by dictating what other people are allowed to write/read.” That sort of attitude always gets my hackles up, even if I agree with an awful lot of what she says otherwise. Personally, in my own writing, I like to write romance, but as only one of the many types of human relationships that I explore and develop in my stories. I have one MC that, when I give her her own series, I fully intend to keep single for the rest of her (nigh-immortal) life. But that’s because that’s what’s right for that character, not because I have anything against romance or romantic plotlines.

    • And yet it is still hard to get readers and reviewers – even when they sound perfect for a book.

  2. The Sculpted Ship, by K. M. Obrien. Female protage, nice little story, no romance that I could detect.


    • Thanks! Grabbed a sample.

      I don’t mind romance as long as I can understand why the two characters are together, but it’s kind of annoying to not see fellow aromantic asexuals anywhere except as jerks or villains.

      • A friend of mine, Lauren Jankowski, is also aro-ace. She runs a blog called Asexual Artists and writes a shifter series. The first book is called Sere from the Green.

      • Ashe Elton Parker

        My friend Lazette Gifford pretty much habitually writes books without romance. She has in fact been complained to about the lack of romance in certain of her books/series. The books I’ve read have been complete and enjoyable stories without a romantic aspect. She also writes a variety of genres.

        Zette on Amazon

        Zette on Smashwords

        And, just for the hell of it,

        Zette’s books on B&N 😛

        • Cool. 🙂 Thanks for the links. [snatches some samples]

          • Ashe Elton Parker

            There are also the Bannon and Clare Steampunk Mysteries by Lilith Saintcrow, if you’re interested in SpecFic. I think there’s something like 3 or 4 books out now. There’s no on-screen romance, and the only sexual relationship either of MC has is only mentioned. (spoiler!) It gets no wordage beyond what it takes to show the female MC being concerned over her lover’s loyalty to her; he’s also her bodyguard, and he killed the last person he was assigned to protect. IMHO all this actually adds to the overall conflict in a subtly ominous way.

      • I’m with you on this one. I tolerate romance, not enjoy it.

        But that’s just me (us?). Those who love it should write it.

        • I find that I can enjoy romantic or sexual relationships in stories as explorations of respect or psychology (and have written them), but without sufficient hook for that, I just tolerate it at best. And then it still gets tiring when every major relationship is about, well, sex. [yawn]

          There are so many potential relationship dynamics that just get ignored, all subsumed under this one umbrella. So much potential that tends to get dismissed to the sidelines when incorporated at all.

          Or, worse, every character pairs off for no logical reason, just an assumption that of course they would. I know aces are a minority, and aro aces seem to be a minority of that, but you don’t have to be aro ace to think “Hey, I don’t want an SO atm…”

  3. Each to their own. While you can have it that way the liking/loving/hate/despising sometimes give reason for the illogical things people do. (A story full of Spocks with no Kirk for comic relief would be a boring tale indeed.)

  4. For my own test, I developed the following criteria: 1. The novel is not…science-fiction/fantasy.

    I gather the OP does not like SFF, thus the exclusion, but I suspect that SFF may be one of the most fruitful places for finding stories about things other than romance. Just sayin’.

    • Yeah, that seems like a completely arbitrary criteria. If you go looking for stories without romance, immediately dismissing two of the genres most likely to not contain romance kinda makes it sound like you’re not really trying to find something so much as trying to find evidence that it doesn’t exist. (The better to back up your assertion that something is a “problem” or that writers “need to” write something else.) By doing so, she’s also dismissing any authors who write in those genres who may actually make efforts to write the kind of stories she’s saying the world needs more of, just because maybe there’s some futuristic tech or a zombie in them or something else that has nothing to do with romance/sex.

    • Yes. This. I can give a hundred fantasy and scifi stories.

      The Hobbit. Lord of the Rings. Hell even A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t revolve around romance or yearning, though there are some side things.

      Dozens of Conan novels, comics and movies.

      Every other Hugo and Nebula award winner.

      Falling Free by Bujold, one of my favs.

      Most Star Trek and Star Wars novels.

      On and on and on.

      EDIT: Crap! Not Falling Free. Sorry. There’s romance central to that one. Lol. I nearly forgot.

      • Jo, In most of the Vorkorsigan series, romance is absent. Even though The Borders of Infinity has a wee bit of romance in it, it is short-lived and incidental. As I recall,
        Mountains of Mourning is without romance.

        I do not understand the aversion to romance. One of the best SF stories of all time is Lester Del Rey, Helen O’Loy, as sweet and poignant a romance as was ever written.

        • Good call, that entire series is great and only a few romance plots in there, and none of them are central to motivations really. Except for Falling Free.

          A lot of Bujold is that way. I’m thinking that Ethan of Athos, it has relationships but they aren’t central.

    • I, too, wondered why she excluded those genres, when the very thing she complained about was less prevalent there.

  5. The last YA book I saw had on the title-

    “Game of Thrones meets Percy Jackson!”

    I’m not sure you can go to YA to avoid explicit sex.

  6. Maybe the OP should read the works of Bernard Cornwell. I wanted to like these tales, since the Saxon series is set right in the middle of my soul’s happy place, but I couldn’t get past the attitude toward women in general. It was on par with, “Oh, aye, I knew a woman called Bertha once, and she was with me for years, and then she went away.”

    I thought, “Didn’t have much invested in that ‘ship, didja, fella?”

  7. A novel needs positive love–love of country, family, a romantic partner, or God to be a book worth reading. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of stuff happening to a shallow person who is instantly forgotten after the book is over.

    • Marilynn Byerly, For example, Bruce Sterling, Holy Fire. Spent 8 hours of my life reading this pointless waste of paper.

  8. There are lots of books without the pursuit of romance being the central theme, and you don’t even have to write all-male military stories to find them, but IRL humans devote a remarkable amount of time in the pursuit of a relationship. It seems reasonable that our literature should reflect that.

    • I think the point is that there are a ton of people who don’t, especially not to the extent it is focused on in a lot of stories.

      A great example is The Social Network, where Zuckerberg pines after some girl and it gives him motivation to make Facebook…or something. Complete shoehorning of a theme.

      I’m surprised the OP isn’t finding books with no romance plot or subplot. That’s about all I read in SF.

  9. Hmm…perhaps a definition of terms is needed here. There’s a world of difference between a novel in the Romance genre where the central focus in on the romantic entanglements of two people who will eventually live happily ever after and novels in which /love/ is the central focus. Love can take many forms and may or may not ‘end well’ – e.g. Anna Karenina, Romeo & Juliet, Lassie Come Home [and no, not being facetious, I loved that movie].

    Or what about novels in which love, or romance, or both love and romance are sub-themes that directly affect the motivation of the characters in other areas – e.g. Hamlet, King Lear, Othelo?

    Caring for something or someone is integral to the behaviour of most humans so a story without some element of caring would be just as odd as a story without anger or hatred or guilt or greed.

  10. My pet peeve–if you’re a writer and can’t find the stuff you like to read, why aren’t you writing it yourself?

    (My tolerance for whiners dips substantially on a Monday.)

  11. Strange article. I read the entire OP, even a little background on Ms. Chen and I still don’t get it.

    I am usually more excited by projects like building a product or a building than romance or sex. Sometimes I think it annoys my wife, but all in all, she’s probably glad I don’t make myself a pest. We get along well.

    I think I am a fairly common, if not typical, male in this regard. And I notice that some women are more driven by sex and romance than others. Big deal. We’re each ourselves.

    But is there something wrong with the state of literature? Not that I can see. I would say that available literature matches the tastes of readers. Many people like romance and sex, so there are lots of books that feature those themes.

    Maybe the OP is looking in the wrong place. PG likes military history and I bet when he gets a yen for a good strategic battle, he goes to the history table, not the literature table.

    I am in the midst of rereading Dieudonne’s Foundations of Modern Analysis for the first time since college. No sex or romance there, never would have found it on the books table at Costco, but it’s loads of fun– I can feel those neurons stretching and squealing with pleasure on being reactivated.

    • Terrence OBrien

      But is there something wrong with the state of literature?

      No. Consumers are reading what they choose, and authors are writing what they choose. If some author disapproves of their choices, so what?

  12. Richard Hershberger

    Moby Dick. Seriously. Great book: everything it’s cracked up to be, and no romance.

  13. Ashe Elton Parker

    Though I have yet to write a story where romance is excluded for an MC, I can say that I am unafraid to rip my characters away from their lovers if retaining the lover would ruin the point/plot of the story. This is because I’ve read too many non-romance books where the romance is superfluous and adds nothing to the plot or conflict of the story, and where it doesn’t highlight anything new about any of the characters participating in the romance, while being a prominent part of the story–where all it does is give the writer opportunities to throw in an explicit sex scene or few. My philosophy on including romance in any of my SpecFic is requiring it to add to the story’s conflicts or build characterization of a character.

    • “This is because I’ve read too many non-romance books where the romance is superfluous and adds nothing to the plot or conflict of the story, and where it doesn’t highlight anything new about any of the characters participating in the romance, while being a prominent part of the story–where all it does is give the writer opportunities to throw in an explicit sex scene or few.”

      It’s my suspicion that this is where much of the romance dislike comes from.

  14. I don’t read a lot of non-genre fiction, but IIRC, The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver didn’t feature any romantic elements. Love for friends, yes, but I don’t think the OP is looking for lack of emotion – just lack of coupling…

  15. The OP makes a classic mistake, totally missing why we consume fiction in the first place.

    We go to fiction to be guided through a desired experience. There are lots of experiences we like to have, and all of them center around strong emotions.

    Romance is one of the strongest, most satisfying emotion-driven experiences in life. And I’m not talking about sex, which is wonderful as well. I’m talking about the falling in love part. The part where someone you find desirable desires you, wants to commit to you, finds you admirable.

    So of course it’s going to be all over because many folks love that experience. It’s a huge part of life.

    But none of that precludes writing strong female characters. Or female characters in books with romance who talk about other things than the guy.

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