Writing a Romance

Yesterday, Damien Walter had a wonderful column on romance and fantasy in The Guardian, and he mentioned The Thorn and the Blossom. The column is titled “Romantic Fantasy, Fiction and Reality,” and it has an intriguing subtitle: “The elusive nature of ‘real’ love is a perennial question for writers, and fantasy authors provide some refreshing ways to pose it.”

Here’s what he says about the book:

“But what if true love is rare – so rare that we might only find it once every ten lifetimes? Would you suffer loneliness for eternity waiting for love, or would you settle for something less? Such is the theme of The Thorn and the Blossom by Theodora Goss, a novel almost as remarkable for its format as its writing (but only almost). Packaged as a slipcased, accordion fold book, read in one direction it tells the story of Evelyn, and in the other of Brendan, two star-crossed lovers whose lives intersect again and again, but never quite find romance.

“Goss has written some of the most remarkable short fantasy fiction of recent years, shortlisted for the World Fantasy award for short fiction in 2005 for “The Wings of Master Wilhelm,” republished in her sole collection to date, 2006’s In the Forest of Forgetting. The Thorn and the Blossom is Goss’s longest work to date but even with its dual stories combined it numbers less than 100 pages. Nevertheless, it extends her fascination with postmodern revisions of myth and folktale, which has led to her being labelled among the emerging “mythpunk” movement in contemporary fantasy. The Thorn and the Blossom introduces the courtly Arthurian myth of Gawain and Elowen, and recasts it in modern garb, asking the reader to wonder if the values of courtly love could survive in the modern world.”

The reason I mention this is that honestly, I never thought of myself as writing a romance when I wrote the story. I knew that I was writing a love story, but I’d been so used to thinking of romance as “category romance” – you know, the stuff in the romance section of the bookstore. And The Thorn and the Blossom is most certainly not that. But romance doesn’t have to be defined so narrowly, does it? The word used to have a much broader meaning, of course: any tale told in a Romance language, one of the languages derived from Latin, rather than in Latin itself. Latin was for serious writing. French and Spanish and Italian were for fanciful tales about knights and ladies and giants. (Which, of course, The Thorn and the Blossom is about, technically. It’s about what happens when Romance, in that broader sense, survives into the modern world.)

But I think what I wrote is in fact a romance, in the lower-case-r sense, so the question is, what can fantasy add to romance? And I don’t mean vampires. I don’t mean, what can fantasy tropes add to category romance, without actually changing its fundamental nature? Because the love interests in category romance are already fantasy figures, so there’s not all that much difference between having a romance in which our heroine falls for a dashing, dastardly pirate and a romance in which our heroine falls for a dashing, dastardly vampire/werewolf/mummy. (All right, I don’t think there are many supernatural romances, as these books are often called, with mummies in them.) I write this as someone who spent her teenage years reading category romances, from Barbara Cartland on, as well as mass market fantasy. And I do not write it as a criticism, simply as an observation that supernatural romance is a logical extension of, not a fundamental change to, category romance.

But what can fantasy add to the love story? Because I think Walter is asking an important question. What is real love, and what can fantasy tell us about it? One thing it can do is express the mythic dimension of love. The realist novel goes perhaps a little too far in showing us the ways in which love is socially constructed. Yes, Elizabeth Bennett does realize that she loves Mr. Darcy after she sees Pemberley. She sees herself as the mistress of Pemberley as well as his wife. In Jane Austen, love is always shot through with economic considerations. And that is a genuinely important insight into how we love, although she has been criticized for looking at love, and human motivations, so coldly. But love is also foolish, dangerous, magical. Emily Brontë shows us that in Wuthering Heights. And of course she has been criticized for giving us protagonists who essentially torture each other. In our rational era, Heathcliff is seen as abusive, his love for Catherine Earnshaw as unhealthy. But that sort of obsession, that complete desire for the beloved – that’s part of love too. Pride and Prejudice is a novel; Wuthering Heights is the story of two people who belong in a Romance but ended up in a novel.

When we are in love, it feels mythic. The world feels fantastical. We feel as though we are “soul mates,” meant to be together since before birth, after death. And perhaps we are. Perhaps the novel is not, in fact, the ultimate word on love. So at a minimum, fantasy shows us what love feels like – as though we are suddenly, actually, living in a Romance that has come true. And perhaps (at a maximum?) what fantasy does is show us the fundamental truth of love. That love is exactly that: the coming of magic into the world.

Reminder: Book Giveaway #1 is still going on, so if you’d like to enter, look at the rules below! Remember that it will end on Sunday night, at midnight my time (Eastern Standard Time).

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6 Responses to Writing a Romance

  1. Colleen says:

    Hm, when I’m in love I think it feels more like the category-romance love. It’s not so large, is easily compartmentalized as a hormonal surge caused by fourth chakra stimulation, and a big component of it is practicality and sexual attraction. It seems romance in fantasy presents love as something much more of that “soulmate” vibe, something destined and one and only, the star-crossed stuff. It’s beautifully escapist although I find myself enjoying it less particularly when all the good guys get paired up by the end of the book AND the in-love-ness looks the same with every star-crossed couple (i.e. the Twilight “imprinting” made me feel kind of ill.) But I totally agree…fantasy shows us what love could feel like…in a dream or a fantasy or a myth…sorry I am so cynical…

    • Colleen, I don’t think you’re cynical, just more realistic. And the realistic stuff always matters. I believe the “soul mate” stuff exists, but is rare. Although when it hits you, you certainly know it . . . (Hated the love relationship in Twilight myself. Love needs to be between equals, and the relationship between Edward and Bella made me queasy.)

  2. Such an interesting comment on “the values of courtly love” by the reviewer…..

    I did my thesis, working with Professor Fradenburg, on “courtly love” – only from our view, it has little if anything to do with love and everything to do with how one justifies living knowing that one is destined to kill and die. (I also used “Blade Runner” as my commentary on how we’re still struggling with this idea today. Roy Batty is the ultimate hero; The Knight’s Tale lacks heros altogether.) Ah, but I digress.

    I is a wonderful review, and I’m so looking forward to reading your work and your presentation. (Form matters tremendously in the telling of a story.)

  3. Shannon, your thesis sounds very interesting! I would actually love to do more research into the courtly love tradition. I studied medieval literature briefly in college, then Chaucer as a grad student, and since then, nothing. (So many things I would like to research, sigh . . .)

    • Um, I spent a lot of time with it. As well as Lacan, Foucault, Jameson, and a whole bunch of others whose methodology I seriously questioned, but the ideas were fun. My plans after graduation were to try to go to the University of London’s grad program in Medieval Studies: everything is taught in Middle English and your library is the British Manuscript Museum. I couldn’t think of anything dreamier…..

      Yes, my thesis was fun. Everyone swore I couldn’t make it work, and when I elegantly did, they were shocked. (You know how had it is to shock a department of English Professors. LOL) It was a delightful (and hard) project. 🙂

      And yes, the more you study, the more you realize you have to learn. Isn’t it wonderful?!

  4. I wrote romance years ago and I always thought of it as fantasy. I totally get your post. The genre has evolved and the market has changed as it always does with new readers and a variety of other factors. Fantasy has changed too. I’ve never seen such a mix of genres, but there is nothing wrong with a love story or a romance. A.S. Byatt proved that with Possession. As one of the comments said, Bladerunner could be viewed as a love story when you include the aspects of The Cult of Chivalry, which is all about death. Love is not far away.

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