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?