Complaining About Books I Don't Like

(Book Reviews)

Sean’s Thoughts on YA Romance, Part XIV

with 5 comments

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This guy has a lot to answer for.

It’s Valentine’s Day, which means that love is in the air and I have an excuse to complain about my favourite pet peeve! Of course, I refer to the many-headed beast that is YA romance. Almost everybody agrees that romance in teenage fiction is kind of…well, ‘stupid’ seems like too strong a word, so let’s go with ‘bad’. (Or ‘stupibad’, to employ a neologism of my own design.) Yet the same tropes keep coming up again and again – it’s as if the entire YA community is staring at an unsightly pile of cat poo in the middle of its collective living room, tut-tutting and complaining about what an awful smell it’s making and doing exactly nothing to clean it up.

If you follow me.

So, below I’ve summarised a few of the things I’d love to see less of in YA romance, along with a few of the things I’d love to see a whole lot more of. Keep in mind that I’m primarily talking about ‘genre’ YA fiction here – paranormal romance, urban fantasy, fantasy, even those new-fangled dystopians that are all the rage right now. Contemporary YA is much better about handling realistic and thorny teenage romances, although there’s one trope in particular that it could really do without.

Let’s begin!

1) Instant True Love, AKA Twu Luv.

You saw that one coming, right? I think I’ve written on this topic three times now.

There seem to be a certain number of YA authors who are under the impression that two people can and should fall in love instantly upon seeing each other. I understand it has even become popular in recent years for characters to have had some sort of epic past-love romance, just to bolster the idea that they can take one look into each other’s eyes and know on the spot that this is their Soulmate (I could do without ever seeing that word again).

Do I really need to explain what’s wrong with this? No? Well too bad, I’m doing it anyway.

Here’s how these scenes usually play out: the main character sees her love interest for the first time (it’s almost always a ‘her’), and the reader is treated to a long, loving description of his male-model looks and perfect hair and high cheekbones (why the high cheekbones?!). After the reader has finished digesting a big chunk of Beefcake Exposition, the main character will add a perfunctory note explaining that oh, she also felt immediately drawn to him in a mysterious, one might say supernatural way – if we’re lucky, that is. Sometimes it’s just the physical description and little else.

That’s not love, that’s lust. Go to any major urban area and walk around for a few hours. There’s a very good change that you’ll you spot somebody you consider to be extremely attractive. Would you say no to having sex with them? Probably not. Are you head-over-heels in love with them based on that one glimpse, and are you going to spend the rest of the day thinking obsessively about meeting them again? I certainly hope not.

Please, give the reader some other reason to think that these people are in love.

2) Stalking spelled backwards is ‘love’.

Yes, people are still doing this. No, I have no idea why.

AUTHORS: If your love interest is an insufferable asshole/a stalker/psychotic, nobody with half a functioning brain is going to want your main character to end up with him.

3) The inevitable love triangle.

Before inserting a love triangle into your story, ask yourself whether it really needs to be there. If the answer is ‘no’, do not put a love triangle into your story.

Oh, and you bonus un-points if the poor sap shoved into the Loser Corner is charming, loving and stable, while the designated love interest is creepy and potentially dangerous. See: every YA love triangle ever.

Closely related to this is the slutty best friend who exists solely to be a huge bitch and make the main character look better by comparison. I have talked about this elsewhere.

4) Normativity ‘R Us.

Picture your average genre-YA couple. If you didn’t immediately think of two white, able-bodied, straight and stupidly attractive people, you have far more eclectic reading tastes than I.

This is another Cat Poo Issue (feel free to use that one), since agents and editors keep saying that YA could do with more diversity, and I know for a fact that many people are writing books that try to take readers a bit further from their comfort zone than is normal. And yet, the shelves are still packed with covers showing white 25-year old models pretending to be 16-year olds. Yes, things are starting to change, but it’s happening sloooowly. (This is another area where contemporary YA is a lot better than genre.)

Take note, however: if you are going to buck the trend, please don’t treat your non-white-/gay/whatever characters as mere window dressing. Readers will notice if you treat their personalities like an attribute sheet that has ‘bisexual’ or ‘black’ tacked on to the end. Oh, and avoid stereotyping. You’d think I wouldn’t have to say that in this day and age, wouldn’t you?

5) The tragic death of Mr. Minority.

This one is probably more common in contemporary, to be honest. You know the story: main character is safely within the bounds of the majority, but falls in love with somebody who isn’t. Poignancy and coming-of-age ensues.

Then one of them dies. And when I say ‘one of them’, I mean the minority character.

This can cross over with what’s known as ‘Death by Newbery Medal‘. I suspect it’s a trope being kept alive by people who don’t realise that a better title for Romeo and Juliet would be Idiocy in Five Acts, by William Shakespeare. Killing off one of half (or even both halves) of a couple does not necessarily make their romance more meaningful. Mixed-race romance? The non-white character (who will often be poor, for extra Liberal Points) will almost certainly die. One character has a possibly-fatal-but-maybe-they’ll-make-it-through disease? They’re gonna die, usually in the most maudlin way possible. The characters are gay? If they manage to end up in a relationship at all (an iffy proposition in itself), they will almost certainly die, although it’s more likely they’ll stand on the sidelines until the author needs something tragic to happen so all the straight characters can learn an important lesson. That lesson is usually…uh…don’t be gay? You know, sometimes it’s difficult to give writers the benefit of the doubt…

This has the effect of suggesting there are two distinct kinds of love: there is ‘good love’, by which I mean ‘normal love’, where you get to ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. Then there is ‘bad love’, which kills you. Somehow, the publishing world has decided that this kind of story deserves to be showered with literary awards. Protip: your chances of scoring a major award increase if the minority character is killed in a hilariously out-of-the-blue fashion, like an off-page car crash or a sudden, random murder by a phantom mugger who the author conjures out of thin air in the last thirty pages. The last time I came across this was in Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin (not YA), in which a young black prostitute is killed in a completely pointless, yet meticulously described car crash. I was laughing so hard throughout that other people in the cafe I was in started giving me funny looks.

Really, there’s no need for this. This kind of ‘us against the world’ relationship comes with a certain amount of emotional potential built-in by its very nature; you do not need to kill off one of the characters just to up the ante.

And finally…

6) Let’s be more speculative.

This is aimed squarely at the SF/Dystopian writers out there. Why are all of your romances vanilla one-boy-one-girl affairs? Your story is set in the future, land of limitless opportunities! Where are all the clone families and polyamorous three-way romances and matriarchal harems? Are you telling me you can come up with a dystopian society with all sorts of unusual social mores, but you can’t come up with anything more interesting for your characters to do than engage in a boring old high-school romance?

Let’s be more speculative about these things.

That’s all for now! I swear my next post will consist of something other than me complaining. Probably.

Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day!

Written by seanwillsalt

February 14, 2011 at 4:20 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Yaaay. I love it when you point this stuff out. And what IS it with high cheekbones?

    Jaimie

    February 14, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    • I guess they want their love interests to look like Johnny Depp or something.

      He is still considered really hot, right? Or is there some other high-cheekboned guy now?

      seanwillsalt

      February 14, 2011 at 4:40 pm

      • When I hear “high cheekbones” I think about Egyptians.

        Jaimie

        February 15, 2011 at 2:48 pm

  2. Happy Hallmark day!

    Katie

    February 15, 2011 at 12:08 am


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