Romance Novels and Wish Fulfillment

In my first post about genre fiction, I mentioned in passing that “romances” are considered a subset of genre fiction, and like all the others, are looked down upon as a lesser form of literature. Hell, I’m pretty guilty of that myself; I have expressed multiple times how I would never read a Harlequin romance or similar “bodice ripper”. In my other posts, I focused primarily on science fiction and fantasy, but perhaps the time has come to discuss romance after all.

You see, I’ve been reading the Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey. I’m enjoying them a lot, but I often think of how they were recommended to me. A friend suggested them, with the comment that “even though the covers look like total bodice rippers, they’re not that at all”. And strangely enough, I was completely reassured by that comment – I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was reading a bodice ripper, after all. Which is fairly preposterous, because these books, despite being clever and well-written and just all-around good, they are most definitely romances, complete with the sex scenes you would expect from that title.

The covers are... a little much, I'll agree.

The covers are… a little much, I’ll agree.

But look at my phrasing there, in that last sentence: I basically said that romances can’t be clever or well-written, or even good. And I’m willing to bet that you agreed without a second thought. How ridiculous, right? Especially if you look at the Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms specifically, with their delightfully strong female protagonists, unexpected takes on traditional plots, and solid sense of humor and wonder. And why shouldn’t a romance novel have all of those things? Because they are often cheaply-produced and spat out with a factory formula? That’s a fair enough criticism, but not all publishers or romance lines are so formulaic, and more thought often goes into those particular books than a lot of non-readers would think. The other reason? Because these books are 100% pure, grade-A wish fulfillment.

I believe I’ve discussed before how wish fulfillment is regarded as trash literature, the type of thing only unsophisticated readers appreciate, but no one with a refined palate could ever tolerate. Ugh. But there’s another level to it. The wish fulfillment that’s most often disdained is specifically female wish fulfillment; male wish fulfillment is seen as true literature, not that they’d ever admit it. But think about how many works exist featuring a middle-aged listless writer/professor having an affair with a beautiful young student who brings joy back into his life. Yeah, that’s pure, grade-A wish fulfillment too. The wish fulfillment of boring, unimaginative, middle-aged men, who frankly I couldn’t care less about. Or how many post-apocalyptic works exist where the lone stoic man survives and makes his way in a world gone mad, living only by the rules of the wild and his own wits and ingenuity and of course, his gun (or other appropriate weapon). Disgusting, awful wish fulfillment for bros. If any of you are on okcupid, you’re likely familiar with the question “In a certain light, wouldn’t nuclear war be exciting?” I don’t know if I have ever seen a man answer no to that question. It’s the same thing – they’ve bought into the kind of philosophy being peddled by books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, or dozens of others.

Why is this STILL HAPPENING? And why do people still tolerate Woody Allen in the first place?

Why is this STILL HAPPENING? And why do people still tolerate Woody Allen in the first place?

But female wish fulfillment, now that’s just unacceptable. Women can’t be allowed to read books where they can imagine themselves in dream-like fantasies; it’s bad for them and their fragile brains! Here, let’s look at two books that I read just recently, and how they add up with wish fulfillment, genre categorization, and “merit”. The first is The Mermaid’s Sister by Carrie Anne Noble; the second is Fortune’s Fool by Mercedes Lackey, the third book in the Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series. Right off the bat, I take issue with the fact that the Mercedes Lackey series is only found in my local bookstore’s romance aisles, not the sci-fi/fantasy aisles, despite the romance being extremely secondary to the fairy godmothers, magic, dragons, and mermaids. The Mermaid’s Sister, on the other hand, is being peddled on Amazon as “magical realism”, which many of you will recognize as being the much more literarily acceptable cousin of fantasy. And if you couldn’t guess by the title, there’s mermaids.

I’ll be honest, I rather enjoyed The Mermaid’s Sister, despite the writing being a little lacking and the love triangle plot being ultimately uninspired. However, I was left the most unimpressed by the ending – one of the two sisters completes her transformation into a mermaid, and rejoins her mermaid brethren in the sea, and discovers her heritage as the Sea King’s daughter. The other sister finds true love. Fine. My problem is that the latter sister is portrayed as having gotten the happier ending. We’re supposed to believe that we should want to stay on land and fall in love with some human man, rather than being a literal mermaid princess. That’s the vision we’re supposed to buy into, and I do not, at all.

But then there’s Fortune’s Fool, which also follows the Sea King’s mermaid princess daughter, who also falls in love with a human man, and is an assassin, and rescues herself from an evil jinn, and befriends a lot of other rad magical girls, including a werewolf and a ghost and a swan maiden. Yeah, that already sounds like the much more appealing vision, to me. A third of the way into the book, the mermaid princess falls in love with the wise and handsome musician prince, and they have sex in a field, and then they rescue a bunch of kidnapped girls, and it’s wonderful. The protagonist of Fortune’s Fool has agency and power and characteristics beyond “I love this boy”, unlike the protagonist of The Mermaid’s Sister. Maybe that’s why it’s considered a less literary book – because the vision that the female readers are buying into is not the one that the male literary community believes they should be buying into. And yes, Fortune’s Fool has sexual scenes, unlike The Mermaid’s Sister (although it should be noted that The Mermaid’s Sister was written by a deeply religious author, which accounts for some of that, as well as some of the lessons of the story). But that’s part of the fantasy, too, and sexual content is not a barrier to a genre fiction book being considered more literary than its equivalents. Look at A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones – are you going to tell me that some of the sex scenes in those books are not male fantasies, put down to the page?

What I think a lot of it comes down to, personally, is that wish fulfillment is fine when it’s written by men, for men. But when it’s by women, for women? That’s a problem, because of, you know, the patriarchy. Women can indulge in the fantasies and wish fulfillment that is provided for them by men, when it’s an acceptable vision of the female fantasy as men imagine it. But when it’s what women actually want, that goes too far. Romance novels do not care at all for the male reader or the male writer, which of course, makes them uncomfortable. And that’s why they’re derided as being “trashy”, even when you can find worse smut in every other chapter of A Song of Ice and Fire. So I, for one, am done deriding romance novels, their readers, and their writers. Because that’s exactly what the patriarchal facets of the publishing industry want me to do.

2 comments for “Romance Novels and Wish Fulfillment

  1. July 8, 2017 at 9:58 pm

    Very true, what you say.

    I wouldn’t like to see anyone shy away from offering well-considered critique to the romance genre, though. As Anita Sarkeesian says about her critique of computer games, for a long time game bros whinged about how their entertainment wasn’t taken seriously. Yet when Sarkeesian took it seriously — by applying the tools of criticism used for more ‘serious works’ — they whinged about that, too. If we were to quit critiquing the romance genres because Patriarchy, that would be robbing the genre of the seriousness we want it to be afforded, no?

    • Jennifer Kathleen
      July 8, 2017 at 10:12 pm

      I certainly wouldn’t recommend not critiquing it, but I don’t like the idea of the critiques along the lines of “this isn’t realistic” or “it sucks because it’s too feminine”. Critique like “a lot of characters have no personalities” or “wow some of this is pretty racist” should definitely be given. There’s things that should be accepted as facets of the genre and there’s things that shouldn’t. The same goes for video games, I’d say – critiquing a first person shooter by saying “wow there’s a lot of guns in this game” isn’t necessarily productive because it’s a given considering the genre of game. But saying “maybe you could include female characters who don’t exist to suck the protagonist’s dick” is valid, because that isn’t an inherent part of the genre. Nothing is above (or below) criticism, of course. But most criticism I see for romance is “it’s all about sex” and “it’s an unrealistic fantasy”, which I think shows the critic’s lack of consideration for what the genre is.

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