Is "Realistic Romance" a Realistic Option?

Can the categories of "romance" and "realism" overlap in meaningful ways?

Posted Dec 02, 2019

Is the phrase “Realistic Romance” a contradiction in terms? Is it a classic oxymoron right up there with “free gift” and “adult children”?

Or will “Realistic Romance” now forever (another lovely oxymoron) be known as a category of books designed for the reader who seeks plots focused on the wild, the unstoppable, and inevitable merging of two soul-mates who, despite all odds, face the world more bravely because their love has made them strong?

That sure sounds like romance. What it doesn’t sound is realistic.

I’m saying this not only as a happily married woman who has lived with the same man for, count ‘em, 28 years but also as a fan of impossibly unrealistic classics such as "Wuthering Heights," "Gone With the Wind," and "The Princess Bride."

I like romance, but I like romance in its place. What I don’t like is romance filed under “Realistic” even as a convenience—or as a joke.

It was a former student of mine who sent me the photo of a staggeringly large number of titles piled neatly at the end of a major bookstore chain’s aisle with the sign “Realistic Romance” placed above them.

I’d never seen the designation before although subheadings I knew by heart.

Historical romance? Sure. Otherwise known as “bodice-rippers,” these books can be recognized immediately by the young woman with a tangle of long hair whose dress—with its mandatory poufy-sleeves and lace—is off one shoulder, indicating both defiance and availability. I read these by the dozen when I was a teenager and still keep Anya Seton’s books on my shelves for when I have a cold, a bad day, or simply need soothing.

Paranormal romance? Yep. Same thing, but with vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, and ghosts.

Sci-fi romance, otherwise shined up as “Speculative Fiction” (not an oxymoron but a redundancy, perhaps). All of the above except with travelers from other galaxies and/or times.

Christian romance? Incredibly popular and lucrative; all the courtship and none of the sex.

Erotic romance? All of the sex that was left out of the Christian romance books pulsing through every steamy sentence.

These are powerful books: Don’t underestimate them. Their readers are legion and loyal. Romance books of every kind continue to be sold in supermarkets and drugstores, shelved right alongside aspirin, eggs, and other necessities.

And don’t underestimate the craft that goes into writing any kind of romance novel, either. I did, many years ago, and I was humbled by the experience.

As an impoverished graduate student (another redundancy), I thought it would be easy and cool to write a romance novel. I submitted a plot outline, 10 pages, and the required chapter summaries to one of the biggest publishers and was delighted—and quite self-assured—when they asked for another 50 pages.

This imprint explained that they wanted some racy scenes but was equally adamant that the scenes could not include clinical language. Or, no naming of body parts.

Have you ever tried to write 10 pages of sex—seductive and steamy scenes—without naming anything? Give it a try.

I’d written half my dissertation; my poetry had appeared in august publications; I’d worked in development and earned my employers a significant grant. I thought I could write anything. I was wrong.

Writing the sex scenes for this romance manuscript was a nightmare. It turned into a pervert’s version of Mad Libs. You can only use the word “manhood” so many times in one paragraph, I discovered, and after the third or fourth “heaving bosom” within the space of five pages, I was toast. I was defeated.

My respect for the writers who can produce these works is sincere; it’s not easy to write a book, any book, and I give them credit.

It’s the “Realistic Romance” designation that gives me the fantods. Such books should come with the kinds of warnings labels attached to psychics and clairvoyants: “For Entertainment Purposes Only.”

Because let’s face it, “Realistic Romance” would not only include scenes on awkward sex, snoring, reflux, and rashes but fully half the works would have to end in divorce.

Let's face it: There's more need for hand-holding than there is for swashbuckling—and that's no fantasy.

Real romance doesn't rely on escaping from life; it depends on facing it together.