Categories: Romance

We Need More Books Without Romance

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.

PG :

View Comments (40)

  • 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?"

    • Try his Sharpe books. There aren't women in all of them, but when there are they are plot movers. And Richard loves women.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.)

    • Lol.

      Quit yer bitchin' and do yer own stuff and get off my lawn!

      I feel the exact same way.

      • I need a lawn so I can tell adults to get off it. :lol:

        The kids I would let borrow my books while I feed them Oreos.

  • 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.

    • 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?

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

  • 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.

  • 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...

  • 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.