Romance and Fantasy

Several people I follow retweeted this today:

Fans of happy endings took a beating on Twitter this week, thanks to reader reactions to Veronica Roth’s Allegiant. They (we) are no fun at parties. (I don’t get this one. I like my parties with a happy ending, but I guess some people prefer cleaning vomit off the couch at 3 AM?). We are shallow and entitled, reading for wish-fulfillment and believing authors owe it to us. Since we hear such criticisms regularly, it’s no surprise Alexis Hall’s tweet was so popular.

In my last post, I made a similar point about the happy endings of children’s literature and the value of hope. I don’t think a belief in lasting love is false or self-deceiving, and I don’t think a happy ending necessarily means a perfect wish-fulfilling fantasy one. Here’s how children’s author Katherine Paterson describes her hopeful endings:

[T]he hope of my books is the hope of yearning. It is always incomplete, as all true hope must be. It is always in tension, rooted in this fallen earth but growing, yearning, stretching toward the new creation. . . .

How shallow and cynical to dismiss a hope like that as false, wish-fulfillment fantasy. Without such hope, we’re stuck with the world as it is, fallen and fucked-up. So yes, Hall’s words resonated for me, too.

At the same time, they got me thinking about all the ways that romance is a genre about fantasy. Because I think this tweet is only partly right. 

Digression: How We’re Talking About Fantasy in My Class (skip ahead if you just want the romance part)

It just so happens that we are talking about fantasy in my Children’s Lit class right now, so it’s been on my mind. We’ve read fairy tales, and we’ve read a straight-up fantasy novel, Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse, but I wait to talk in depth about fantasy as a literary mode until we are reading Kit Pearson’s Awake and Dreaming. Pearson’s novel blends realism and fantasy, and it reflects overtly on the place of fantasy–reading, imagination, magical events–in children’s lives.

The opening section of the novel describes heroine Theo’s life with her young, impoverished single mother. It’s pretty gritty in its details for a middle grade novel. The novel feels particularly real in our classroom because it’s set in Vancouver and Victoria; it mentions real places my students have been. In the second section, Theo finds herself magically part of a big middle-class family, the kind she has read and dreamed about: two boys and two girls, with room for her in the middle, just like in Narnia or Swallows and Amazons. Life there is perfect, “the new creation.”

But in the third, longest part the magic fades, Theo returns to reality (where her mother dumps her on her aunt and goes off with a boyfriend), and she has to figure out a way to come to terms with the difference. In a sense, the novel is an argument whose structure is thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Ultimately, I think it says that we can’t escape into fantasy forever: as Theo’s school counselor tells her, she can’t live in books, she has to live in this world. But fantasy can armor us to deal with reality and spur us to change it, because it shows us how things might be better.


Next week, as we discuss the second half of the novel, we’ll also discuss attitudes towards fantasy literature for children. These range from “fantasy is perfect for children because it’s imaginative and playful like them” to “fantasy is inappropriate for children because it will teach them to believe false and immoral things about the world.” It’s easy to associate the latter with a Puritan past–but the Harry Potter books rank among the most banned. Joanna Trollope recently argued that fantasy can’t provide moral guidance (there’s a great response from Marcus Sedgwick).

I’m most interested in the argument, made by Ursula LeGuin among others, that

 fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living.

LeGuin’s “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” is unfortunately scornful of romance, but her point is not that different from the idea that a happy ending isn’t about wish-fulfillment but about hope and a vision of a better reality.

How Romance Is a Genre About Fantasy (Sometimes)

There are obvious ways, of course–like the popularity of paranormal romance. But I don’t think that’s the kind of fantasy Hall meant in his tweet, because of course he knows that exists.

I think when people say romance is not about fantasy, they mean something more like what it’s often accused of being–wish-fulfillment fantasy, the daydreams of sexless housewives and cat-loving spinsters, teen fans with their book boyfriends–than like LeGuin’s dragons or grand themes of good vs. evil.

But in fact romance readers often talk about how our fiction relates to our own fantasies. When we talk about rape and forced seduction in the genre, for instance, women’s rape fantasies come up. We brag about how women who read romance report having happier sex lives. We talk about how romance celebrates female desire and encourages women to talk about their fantasies. None of this quite equates romance fiction with daydreams or sexual fantasies, but it suggests a close kinship.

And I think there’s a lot of straight-up wish-fulfillment fantasy in romance fiction. Characters are frequently well off; they’re typically young and healthy; heroes have six-packs; strong men are brought to their knees by love. None of this is news. Then there’s the sex. It’s mostly not impossible (although I sometimes think one of the characters must have a third arm, given what’s being described), but it is usually outside the statistical norm. Romance may not be porn for women, but like porn, it very often gives us a fairly standardized fantasy vision of sex.

I’ve been critical of this aspect of romance in the past. I think the (perceived) need to cater to some extent to reader wish-fulfillment limits the genre. I get tired of same-y sex scenes and large, chiseled-featured, well-muscled, and, um, large heroes.

But. To insist that romance is not about fantasy risks belittling the enjoyment of readers who turn to it for escapist wish-fulfillment, or to be turned on. I think that’s some readers most of the time and most readers some of the time. It risks suggesting, too, that there’s no truth in fantasy of the wish-fulfillment kind (something LeGuin is guilty of). I don’t agree. Wish-fulfillment may be easy escapism, but it can also teach us to wish for and search out what will bring us happiness. It can teach us truths about our own desires, sexual and otherwise. I think true, yearning hope for the new creation and fantasy wish-fulfillment can coexist in the genre–even in the same book. A good romance novel, like a good romance hero, can satisfy us on multiple levels. (Sorry, couldn’t resist).

What do you think? To what extent, and in what ways, is romance a genre about fantasy? And what does “fantasy” mean, anyway?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Romance and Fantasy

  1. Erin Satie says:

    Weirdly, the first thing that jumped to my mind reading this–especially the bit about how fantasy can’t provide moral guidance–was this article I read yesterday, “Hypocrisy as a Key Strategic Resource” ( — the idea being, basically, that Snowden the whistleblowing idealist is disrupting a pleasant, communal hypocrisy & that few of the people thus disrupted (i.e., spied-upon leaders) would thank him for it.

    Freshly-scrubbed ideals can be awkward & unwanted in the real world.

    Personally, I much prefer fantasy to hope. Really, hope is one of my least favorite emotions to experience. Fantasy doesn’t make me feel anxious or foolish & hope tends to do both.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I really wish his example of useful hypocrisy hadn’t been the husband jacking off to porn and hiding it from his apparently sexless, not-interested-in-novelty wife, but yeah. I don’t think this is weird at all. I am listening right now to Isabel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration of African-Americans, and it’s making me think a lot about the audacity of hope, the risk it poses to people who aren’t supposed to have it, because it is a threat to order.

      The last novel we’re reading in Children’s Lit (I keep dragging it in as an example because it’s taking up so much of my time, energy and thought) is Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Junior says directly that if he’s going to have hope he has to leave the Rez, because only white people have hope. And going to school off the Rez is risky and painful in so many ways. Hope isn’t easy at all.

      I think there are romance novels that really reflect the dangers and difficulties of hope–not just for the characters but for readers. And a whole lot that don’t want to go there and offer more comfortable fantasies. And that’s OK, because we need both.

      • Erin Satie says:

        I know, right? Thanks for being so relatable, dude.

        It’s one thing to uncritically hold up hope as a goal or value, another to play out the consequences–what happens if those hopes become reality? Who else is going to be upset or bothered? How will they react?

        I haven’t read Alexie, but a lot of the Maghrebi literature I’ve read deals with similar themes. The French colonizers who preach a set of really appealing ideals (liberte! egalite! fraternite!) but, when the Moroccans try to adopt them for their own, find out that they’re not allowed.

  2. sonomalass says:

    I’ve read several romance novels lately in which being afraid to hope is the biggest obstacle a character faces. Admittedly, sometimes the “I’ve been hurt before and now I’m afraid to love” device is a token obstacle, but sometimes it’s more than that. Characters who think they have learned to live without a romantic partner, because experience says that loving hurts, have to learn to hope in order to take the leap of honest commitment. Jeannie Lin’s The Sword Dancer is a good example, I think. It’s scary for some people to let another person be that important to their happiness, and learning to hope enough to trust, or trust enough to hope, can be a very powerful component of the romance happy ending.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I think romance often takes hope seriously–the risk, the challenge, the value of it; the way it’s more than pie-in-the-sky optimism. I love books like this. I think hope like that is important in our personal lives and, more broadly, for society. And it’s something romance shares with plenty of “canonical” literature of previous generations. (I notice that Shakespeare often comes up in these discussions, mentioned as if he only wrote tragedies. And also by people who don’t really understand what “tragedy” meant and why it was considered a higher artform. “Death = great art” is not a helpful shorthand).

  3. pamela1740 says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post. Like many others, I respond to the boldness and elegance of Alexis’s tweet, which for me seems to assert “back off and don’t pity (or patronize) us for reading romance.” As you noted, it can be read as a response to the uncomfortable and reductive assumption that we (romance readers) are women or girls who consume romance novels to compensate for inadequacies in our real lives. I think it’s very difficult to deconstruct and undermine that assumption, which I have recently faced in talking to a good friend who in every respect I expected would be able to see past the lurid marketing of romance and turn off the easy and automatic equation that romance novels = female fantasy = real-life deprivation. It was hard to challenge this because it’s difficult to articulate the nuances around the role of reading and the psychology of fantasy, to assert that nurturing/exploring inner wishes via reading, and the desire to read “escapist” fiction and choose happy endings over dark, depressing literary fiction isn’t an expression of neediness. So it’s wonderful to see how you have explored these connections.

    This conversation with my friend also made me realize that both the fantasy AND the “hope” that HEAs and romance novels represent (accepting “fantasy” and “hope” as useful shorthand terms) put my romance reading preferences (one could substitute “habit” or even “addiction” here….) under the shame shadow when trying to discuss/explain to non romance readers. This is something I talked a little bit about when I was reading The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers — that for some reason even smart, thoughtful, well-intentioned friends make all kinds of truly annoying assumptions about my choice to read romance as a single woman (of a certain age). There’s been already lots of tweeting about the shame/disrespect issue over the past week or so in the wake of Sarah MacLean’s marvelous letter to the NYT Book Review, so I won’t belabor more here. But I’m still struggling with it. True, who needs ’em – what do I care if my friends think romance novels are a bit of a joke? But it does feel uncomfortable when it seems like there is an undertow of judgment/disrespect, or something else I’ve not yet been able to fully articulate for myself.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks for this great comment. These are issues that I wrestle with in my own romance-reading life.

      I wouldn’t say I have reached a place where I don’t see wish-fulfillment (in romance, porn, thrillers w/a super-spy hero, whatever) as somehow “lesser” or “merely” entertaining/escapist. And maybe I never will. But I have reached a point where I want to challenge those assumptions. People should have to defend the idea that wish-fulfillment has less value or can’t be part of art; we shouldn’t just accept it as a given and then deny that romance partakes of wish-fulfillment as a way of elevating/defending the genre.

      I think that’s false about romance and it also implies that fantasy/desire/wish-fulfilling reading is something we should feel shame about, or that it reveals a lack in our lives. People with great sex lives and happy partnerships still have sexual fantasies. They have fantasies during great sex! So to say fantasy isn’t important and would somehow disappear if real life were satisfying seems to deny a basic human truth in a way that’s shaming. (I don’t think that’s what Hall meant. I’m just interested in exploring the implications of defending romance in those terms, which I have done many times myself. I highlighted that tweet because a lot of people responded to it and it reflects a common sentiment/defence of the genre).

    • Erin Satie says:

      I have a cousin who makes porn for a living & after spending hours explaining how she comes at her work from a feminist perspective, while I cheer her on, she will turn around and crack a joke about how only housewives read romance novels, because they’re so vapid.

      Kind of boggles my mind.

  4. People are so weird about sex and love. Everyone’s thinking about it, everyone wants it, but God forbid we write or read about it directly, because … what? That makes us saps? Because we admit we want these things? That we find them important and worth exploring?

    That’s hope, to me. Being openhearted enough to admit that you want something. Having enough of a shred of self-regard that you believe things could be good and that you deserve them to be good. It’s an incredibly vulnerable state, and thus a powerfully brave thing to do.

    I have no objection to the idea of romance as mommy porn. So what if a mom reads romance because it’s sexually arousing? Why in the world would that be a problem? Why shouldn’t we enjoy a fantasy? It brings us back into our bodies and reminds us that we’re women and human beings and we have feelings and needs in a world that seems determined to make us into workhorses and objects.

    Fantasies empower us to hope. We imagine what we want, and then we begin to lean toward it. We begin to think it could be possible for us, that it should be possible. Not that we need to enact the exact scenario we see in a romance novel, but that we can strive for the level of passion and connection that we feel there. We can be brave enough to be vulnerable and want things to be better. We can want good sex and deep love, we can believe that women deserve these things, and the books we read can give us road maps for how to bring this passion and love into our own lives. I’m not ashamed of that. At all.

    I liked Sarah MacLean’s letter to the NYT, because I had the same reaction to the sex issue, but I was surprised she even bothered. I don’t need the New York Times to acknowledge what I care about. I don’t need everyone to agree and publicly state that it has value. I know it has value. It has value because I say it does. The fact is that no matter what I do, think, or read, some people will think it’s stupid. That’s because everyone loves thinking about how stupid other people are. It’s a very enjoyable pastime! In fact the more bitter and narrow your life is, the more you enjoy crapping all over what other people hope and strive for.

    Romance novels are full of women brave enough to hope and fight for something better. That starts with a fantasy – what we imagine we want. It can proceed to a hope that we might achieve the level of passion, love and connection of our fantasies. And it can move on to action, in which we actually pursue this connection in our own lives. There’s plenty of romance to go around at all three of these levels of enjoyment. All three – fantasy, hope, action – have meaning and value.

  5. Ros says:

    I think that’s an extremely odd comment and a false dichotomy. I do think that romance can be about fantasy for many readers (I absolutely include myself in this category). It is a powerful thing to be able to give people the opportunity to experience their fantasies through literature. I think that romance in particular, because people often consume it in large quantities, has the power to shape fantasies as well as give voice to them. It can ‘tell’ us this kind of man is the most desirable, this kind of life, this kind of happy ending. And even though most of us don’t get to fulfil those fantasies directly, the fantasies do, I think, affect our more realistic hopes and aspirations. Sometimes by making us realise that we wouldn’t want the fantasy outside of the pages of a book, and other times by finding ways to make it come true for us.

    Sure, there’s hope in romance. How could there not be in a genre that is defined by a happy ending? But fantasy is what decides how those happy endings are constituted.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I know what you mean about “fantasy” determining the shape of happy endings, but I wonder if you’re using the term “fantasy” in a different sense than the original comment. Part of the problem is that it is such a very flexible word with so many meanings.

  6. Miss Bates says:

    As a cat-loving spinster of a certain age, MissB thinks that romance functions, if we are reducing it to a function, not as wish-fulfillment, but as an alternate reality wherein we can explore choices not made, not taken, not even desired. Wish-fulfillment is too limiting; it makes romance readers into the unfulfilled. It is not possible to live every possibility. Choices limit us, but they also ground us. Literature is a safe space wherein the roads “not taken” can be wandered through. Literature, of all ilks, allows us these openings into what could be, have been, or may be. To define the romance genre as wish-fulfillment is to diminish the happy endings that life can afford. To say that romance is about hope is cynical.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I used the term “wish-fulfillment” partly because John Green did in his tweets criticizing readers who want happy endings (“books are not in the business of wish-fulfillment”) and partly as a way of getting at the kind of relationship some readers seek with romance–to fall for the hero, to step into the heroine’s shoes. And maybe it’s not the best term. I didn’t try very hard here to define the various ways “fantasy” might be defined when we talk about romance as fantasy.

      I think that the points your raise also relate to how much a reader brings to a book: there are readers looking for wish-fulfillment, and readers looking, as you say, for a way to explore roads not taken, perhaps never pondered. I wouldn’t call this “wish-fulfillment” but it is a kind of fantasy/imaginative experience. And it also isn’t necessarily different from wish-fulfillment or personal fantasy in the sense that people fantasize about things (sexual and otherwise) they wouldn’t want to do in real life. I guess “wish-fulfillment” isn’t the best term, because I don’t mean to imply that people read for vicarious experience of something they wish for/feel is lacking, more that reading may satsify the desire for a particular kind of fantasy experience, and some of those kinds are dismissed as wish-fulfillment. Not sure if that’s clearer.

      I don’t think I agree that to say romance is about hope is cynical. We can recognize that love and long, happy relationships exist in the world, but not for everyone, for instance, and wish that more people would find it–that more people’s love would be valued, recognized, that more people could marry if they wished. (I think Hall’s tweet came after one about the play The Pride so that idea of hope for everyone being able to love freely was part of the context).

  7. Sunita says:

    Great post, and there’s much to chew on here. I’m all for emphasizing and encouraging people to be hopeful, especially people who experience a wide or structural gap between what they have and what they hope to have. There’s plenty of theorizing about the importance of hope in generating political and social mobilization in the social science literature, and while we’re not very good at measuring it or replicating studies that find it, most people agree that efficacy/consciousness/hope is critical in motivating behavior. I also believe the psychological studies (good ones! real ones!) that show that depressed people are more realistic about their options and futures than non-depressed people. That disconnect on the part of the latter group is part of what makes risk-taking possible, and some risks pan out. We’d be in very bad shape if everyone in society were risk averse.

    But back to genre: I agree romance is about hope, but really, is there any genre that isn’t? Mysteries are about solving the puzzle, sure, but crime fiction more generally is about justice. Having that as the default outcome (and seeing failures to achieve justice as problematic in genre books) seems to me to be pretty hopeful. And the good v. evil battles in fantasy where at least some of the good guys win, even in dystopian settings, fall in the same category for me. So I’m not seeing how romance is different, except insofar as the hope in romance is focused on personal rather than societal outcomes.

    Granting the wish-fulfillment argument, I don’t see how romance’s wish-fulfillment is somehow special. How is it different, really, from reading to see the bad guy brought to justice, or to see the good wizards/mages/whatever assume the leadership of the new society and bring peace and prosperity to all? Just because it’s more focused on sex? Vigilante justice books have as much emotional fantasy fulfillment in them as Calgon-take-me-away books.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I always appreciate it when you add some data to our anecdata or bring a social science perspective. Although I’m sorry to know my depressed moments are more realistic than my hopeful ones.

      I’m not sure that I’d see romance as different from other genres; I agree that hope is one reason people turn to genre fiction (and children’s literature, whether you think it’s an actual genre or not). Not to mention many 19th-century classics that are still beloved.

      As for why people talk about this issue differently, I suspect sex is part of it. I think it’s a kind of fantasy or wish-fulfillment that is often devalued culturally and seen as best kept quiet or private (except when it’s not because it’s male and used to sell things).

      I think another difference is that romance hope/fantasy, rightly or not, is seen as shallower than a Sherlock Holmes or Jason Bourne or Frodo Baggins fantasy because people think there is no cost for it: no one dies, no one’s hurt, no one sacrifices, it’s all neat and tidy and perfectly perfect. Mystery acknowledges the reality of crime and death before justice is achieved; fantasy battles between good and evil incur losses (would Harry Potter be respected even to the extent that it is if Rowling hadn’t killed off any beloved/significant characters?). While romance is all hot sex and baby epilogues. It isn’t, of course, at least not good romance, but I think that it comes in for the most criticism of its wish-fulfillment/fantasy/escapist elements partly because of that, because it’s seen as not acknowledging the darker parts of reality. That’s my guess, anyway.

      • Sunita says:

        That makes a lot of sense. It’s ridiculous, but it makes sense.

        As you say, there’s hope in children’s lit and 19thC lit, and I’d add that a lot of litfic is not that dark and depressing. If you stop and think about how many writers are consciously trying to write about despair, it’s not THAT long a list. At least I don’t think it is.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Even a lot of the rather depressing books I read have elements of hope/optimism in their endings, though it may be muted. I dislike the “all lit fic is depressing” thing nearly as much as the “all romance is fantasy for cat-lady spinsters” (not quite as much, because less shaming of readers is involved). If people *find* it depressing and don’t want to read it, I completely support that. But that’s as much to do with the reader as the book.

  8. merriank says:

    Reading your great post and the equally great comments have me wondering what I picture or how I would represent ‘romance genre’ to others. My mind has immediately turned to Millais’ picture “The Order for Release”

    The picture shows a Highland wife with an exhausted child in her arms handing over the order that will give her husband back to her – a soldier in the losing side in the Pretender’s War of 1745. The only gaze we see is the woman’s – the power in this image is all hers. Everything has depended on her hopeful tenacity; the husband has no hope but her. It is her persistent hopefulness that reunites the little family I think. You could also say that the red-coated soldier/social authority bows before her embodiment of hope and love.

    Also it is sweet for me that a lady Highlander is ruling in this romantic picture given the ‘thing’ our genre has for Highland heroes and that they are poor given the focus on Lairds and Dukes.

  9. merriank says:

    Another PRB influenced painting apt to the discussion is from a late and lesser known artist:

    “Hope Comforting Love in Bondage” by Sidney Harold Meteyard

    I like the idea of this painting; Hope as experience saying things are going to be OK and the acknowledgement that love tangles us up and is risky

    • pamela1740 says:

      Thank you so much for these wonderful images. I have always loved that Millais painting. And I am just bowled over by your multi-layered art historical tie-in to this discussion. I am inspired to dust off my moldy art history brainspaces (from a former life)!

  10. pamela1740 says:

    I wanted to reply above but can’t figure out how…. but Liz, I agree about the problem with being dismissive of literary fiction as depressing. I think I introduced that in my original comment, and should have been more careful with my language. At this time in my life, I’m not particularly interested in litfic trends, but what I value above all is readers feeling empowered to read broadly and eclectically without the sense that there are genre territories to be defended and/or besieged with shaming or dismissiveness. I do wonder, though, if romance readers are slightly more inclined to diss litfic because to celebrate the HEA and bash “dark” or “difficult” fiction is using the Best Defense/Good Offense strategy.

  11. Isobel Carr says:

    Sunita basically beat me to the comment I was going to make. Almost all fiction (certainly almost all genre fiction anyway) is a fantasy/wish fulfillment of some kind. Hope about justice and right winning out (see mystery, SF/F, and romance). Hope about the good guy triumphing (see same). Wish fulfillment about being smarter, stronger, braver than you really are (see same). I guess I just don’t see the fantasy aspect of romance as being any different at its core than the fantasy aspect of other genres (except that it’s a genre mostly produced and consumed by women and therefor open to judgment and criticism in a way that mystery and SF/F aren’t).

    • willaful says:

      I was just thinking about the idea that, for me as a child, fantasy wasn’t about “fantasy.” There was certainly an element of escape to my reading, but I was also gaining valuable ideas about morality, how to live a principled life, and the things Isobel mentions about justice and good. Nothing was more helpful to forming my moral compass than fantasy for children.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        That’s true for me, too, and is one reason that I love LeGuin’s essay, despite some of my quarrels with it.

        Yesterday YA writer Erin Bow posted a lovely piece about the power of fantasy in response to Joanna Trollope.

        How handy that this topic is in the news just when I want my class to be thinking about it.

      • Isobel Carr says:

        Yes, a lot of the ‘fantasy” is aspirational or didactic, and I’m totally ok with that. I don’t see anything wrong with aspiring to be brave, good, loved, etc.

  12. willaful says:

    Someone from Twitter wrote an excellent response as well… Foz Meadows, perhaps?

  13. Pingback: Linkspam, 11/15/13 Edition — Radish Reviews

Comments are closed.