Wednesday, December 27, 2006

My Thoughts on the Modern Romance Novel

It's been a loooong time since I've read a For Women Only Romance Novel (i.e., the Janette Oake genre). A long time. I used to be a collector, of sorts. Back in the teenage days I loved Oake's happy ending stories full of "romance and adventure." On the tail of Anne and her Prince Edward Island, I particularly enjoyed Oake's Canadian Adventure series. Or Michael Phillips and his Secret of the Rose series. Or Gilbert Morris books? All my friends were reading them. Then, over a period of a few months, I began to realize just how much these books were effecting my emotions. I was 18/19 and ready to get married. On the spot. My happy romance! Yippee!

Unfortunately, my life wasn't like the books I was reading. I was starting law school and trying to find a legal job. I wanted to buy a car of my own instead of having to share one with my mom. I didn't have a prospect in sight. And I was not going anywhere anytime soon. I barely had FRIENDS let alone a romance. My escape from exams was a phony romance created by a middle aged woman who had a sweet thought in her head. But oh the "characters were so real!" I could see myself in a number of stories. The problem was, I had to live in reality. Love wasn't coming softly. In fact, it wasn't coming at all. (Not for at least 8 more years!) So I ditched the books. I loaded up my collection of romantic tales and carted them off to Half Price Books where I exchanged them for a small token of what I had originally put into them. I decided that, not only were they not good for me, but that I wouldn't want any daughter of mine to be duped into reading them either. Beware the idle heart sort of the thing. I needed to engage in The Now.

Now, I'm not a stickler against romance novels. Really, I'm not. I enjoyed Gone With the Wind (ok, that's tragic) and Phantom of the Opera(hmm....again, some tragedy...but it ends well!). I love the tale of Beauty and the Beast and, what girl doesn't like Jane Austen? (Except my sister-in-law who thought Pride & Prejudice started off with a snore!) Rose in Bloom? Let the Hurricane Roar? I'm right with you. But dime-a-dozen heart-y tales of deep blue eyes and long, romantic letters being written from one character to another just jerk my chain. I set them all aside.

My reasoning was this: Obviously God didn't have romance in mind for me then. However, I could feed myself off a story. So I did. And it effected not only my emotions, but my thoughts as well. They put me in a mood to long for something that wasn't meant to be mine -- yet. Romance novels can really mess with a girl. And not just me! My best friend too. We both agreed at about the same time that we needed to lay aside such books and focus on real life. I particularly focused on Phillipians 4:8 -- on what was true, real, and now.

Let us fastforward 10 years. I'm now happily married (in a manner that did not follow the general outline of any book I ever read) and we have had our first child. (Not only that, but my husband has blue eyes.) Life looks a lot different than it did back then. Still, I tend to avoid such books as I know how they have a tendancy to play with emotions and for that, I despise them. That being said, I have several friends who are particular fans of Karen Kingsbury. They know my feelings realated to such books. I have been saying I would read a book of hers just to see if my opinion had changed and to see if I could feel the same way that they do about her work. With that purpose in mind (and with every doubt in existance that I would enjoy the book) I read Oceans Apart this past week.

Please insert a very loud groan.

The book reads like a Hallmark Hall of Fame hour and a half long movie. It's a cheap chick flick. Unfortunately, it took me longer than an hour and a half to read the book as I was continually interrupted by a hungry and/or wet infant. (Things take longer to get through, I've discovered.) I would rather have endured the movie. Maybe.

For starters, her book was cheesy. It had all the attributes of an Oake book except it included references to modern day pop culture. In this book we are given the story of a little boy whose flight attendant mother was killed in a plane accident and now he is being sent off to meet the father he was never told about. Throughout the story he is constantly reminded of the song his mother made up for him to sing to himself whenever she was away. It goes like this (a horrible side effect of this book was that this song caught a tune in my head and replays itself every now and again....much to my dismay):

"I love you the most!
I would like to make you toast!
Although we are oceans apart
You are always in my heart!"

(Toast? It doesn't a lick of sense in the context of ANYthing in the story. I groan in agony.)

The worst part was, from the moment I started turning pages, I felt my emotions being kicked into gear. Now, I can hear the argument that "Good writing involves people's emotions." And I agree. GOOD writing should do that. Why read a story if you don't care about the characters? The fun part about reading is becoming involved in the story, correct? But when the author is writing with the intention of jerking your heart around from the get-go, I lose my respect. I want build up. I want a well-laid foundation and a reason to care about these people. Not tragic (or otherwise) pocket book romances which reach the climax of the fireworks show right from the start. There's no reason to anticipate. I could have told you the end of the story right from the beginning.

Now, I'm looking at these books from a different angle. Now I can read them and think, "Oh yeah, right." Or, "I'm so glad I live in the real world where romance is better than books." The reason this book (and the thought of others like it) makes me mad is because I know it's written to appeal to a certain sector of women. And I know how it effects unwed teenage girls who are still longing to be married (way before their time, too, as the case often is). It pulls at the heart strings on purpose. Don't agree? Check out the "Study Guide" in the back so that you can further delve into the feelings and emotions suffered by the characters in the story. What is this? A book for Sunday School make more palatable by the picture of the perverbial handsome man and beautiful woman shown on the front cover?

I do think this particular genre is a disservice to the female race. It puts our hearts and minds in places that they often shoudl not be. It preps them, sometimes way in advance, for stuff that isn't all that real in the end anyway! It's a time waster on the book shelf.

I'm not saying that such books necessarily effect all females in the same way. Obviously I do not have the authority to declare that. But I would argue that these books are cheap in that they sock you in the gut easily, quickly and without too many demands on our part. Women, being relational, would rather "get right to the point" of the target relationship, right? Why 500+ pages for Gone With the Wind if you can have it all (with that satisfying sigh in the end) with 100+ pages from Oake or Kingsbury? It's Drive-Through reading. Fast food excellence. THAT is what bothers me most. I know that it's written to tickle us quickly but leave the lasting mental/emotional effects that lead us to believe that our lives will mirror that of the characters we read about.

I, for one, am deliciously satisfied that my life does not look like a Kingsbury novel. It's more complex and requires more than even 500 pages to scratch the surface. I believe most people can say the same. It bothers me that these five-and-dime novels keep us from focusing on the now. True, many books distract from the moment. But the point of most books isn't to tie you up and pin you down on an alter or send you off on your own Quest for Love. These books are tricky things.

Therefore I have decided to continue to avoid them for the sake of what I think is a better use of my time and mental energy. (Besides that, I do not need them to fill any "holes.") Again, I cannot say that such books effect everyone else in the same manner and I would be curious to hear other people's thoughts on the matter. At the same time, I would generally discourage Kingsbury and others like her who want to show you a good time in the quickest manner possible while tantalizing you with study guides at the end.

Give me a break!


Rose said...

Amen and amen! I couldn't agree with you more! Thank you for this fantastic treatise on poorly-written cheap penny thrillers! I too went through the whole Oke/Phillips/Pella/Lori Wick stage (probably a bit younger - 9-10 - which was MOST definitely too young to be dreaming of romance) and the general consensus of the Christian world at that time (all the church libraries and Christian bookstores carried the genre) was that these novels were wholesome (didn't they contain Christian messages and morals?) and edifying. I've since picked up a few and skimmed them, and find myself shocked at how bland, stupid, predictable, unrealistic, and LAME the characters and events are! Also, the characters are NOT good role models, as most of the books involve a good deal of kissing, daydreaming (encouraging the young innocent reader into fantasy as well), flirtatious repartee, etc. And just bad writing!!


I know a lot of people from a more conservative perspective react to these Christian Romances more categorically, so far as to include ANYTHING that stirs the heart and the imagination (i.e. Anne of Green Gables). To each his own, but that's a very sad approach in my opinion. (For one thing, Anne doesn't even get married until age 25 - well into spinsterhood in many a bright-eyed sixteen-year-old homeschooled girl's mind.) Anyway, the cheap trashy writing style of the Christian Romance genre that has burgeoned pretty much in the last couple of decades is enough of an identifying sticker in its own right. Regardless of the lessons and morals they'll pick up, I don't want my kids reading worthless fluff.

Karen G. said...

I sympathize with every word you wrote. I think it's just as bad for married women to indulge in this kind of fantasy reading as for young unmarried girls, because real-life men can't always measure up to romance-author-inspired heroes, and the tendency to compare can tend to discontentment. Useful, worthwhile reading about real relationships (as opposed to glorified happily-ever-after fairy tales) is another category entirely.

I shall add Kingsbury to my mental list of authors-not-to-bother-with (where Lori Wick, Gilbert Morris, and Beverly Lewis already reside).

Anonymous said...

I read Janette Oke's Love Comes Softly series, and don't remember being taken by the romance. I was also quite young (maybe 12?), but they were more an extension of Little House on the prairie for me. However, shortly thereafter, I got hooked on Danielle Steele, and believe me, that stirred some thoughts and feelings that should not have been stirred!!

I think that there's a Christian book out there (it may or may not be the Shannon Eldredge book) that cautions women against reading romances and watching certain movies and TV shows, because it puts us out of the here and now (our "boring" married lives, or "unfulfilled" single lives), which can lead to discontent. It's an interesting thought.

Thanks for an honest review, as usual.

Anonymous said...

LOL--I had just skimmed through the comments before posting, but now I see that krakovianka said almost the same thing I did about the discontentment.

Sky said...

The only books I read that can be labeled as "romance" are Emilie Loring's books. She writes with a beautiful view of life and all the stories end well but they aren't without trouble and a little heartache. Her heroines make me want to better my life and help those around me better theirs. Some of the storylines seems a liitle far fetched, but I don't find them any less enjoyable! Trail of Conflict, Bright Skies and Lighted Windows are good ones but really all of them are great!

One of my favorite romances is Busman's Holiday by Dorothy Sayers. Yup, that's my kind of romance!

Lani said...

I've been reading a series that Karen Kingsbury wrote with Gary Smalley and I do admit I have ready two of the fives books. However, I am with you--I GROAN through most of it AND I skip large sections to get to the point. I've found, with the series I've been reading, they could be much shorter and still get the story line acrossed. Who knows if I'll continue reading them or not. If nothing else, I guess they make for a fast read (only because you end up skipping more than a third of the book!). *sigh* Loved finding out I'm not the only out there who feels this way. :)

At A Hen's Pace said...


I agree with every word! My dilemma has been that my mother-in-law keeps giving me these for my birthday, for Christmas, etc. and I've never been able to bring myself to read them. But I couldn't get rid of them, either, since I hadn't read them--I thought I should give them a chance, someday.

You and the other commenters have just given me the nudge I needed--to clear off that shelf space for the more deserving!

Anonymous said...

I read these books a lot..I keep hoping to find modern day stories/romance/drama, that are christian but aren't so sappy and ideal and predictable.I love fiction but I want it to have some meat, some depth, twists, real complex people with deep issues and who may not be all that physically attrative but we can really relate to them.
Us married gals really do have to be aware of these books..Its so easy to close your book and look over at your husband and say "Now why can't you gaze at me and call me your sweetest angel on earth like the guy in this book did!?"

carrie said...

I read these books a lot..I keep hoping to find modern day stories/romance/drama, that are christian but aren't so sappy and ideal and predictable.I love fiction but I want it to have some meat, some depth, twists, real complex people with deep issues and who may not be all that physically attrative but we can really relate to them.
Us married gals really do have to be aware of these books..Its so easy to close your book and look over at your husband and say "Now why can't you gaze at me and call me your sweetest angel on earth like the guy in this book did!?"

Anonymous said...

I don't know if it's a bit too late after the original blog was written to actually comment but here we go...
I understand the modern romance has probably forced most modern women to completely disregard it for it's values... and in some respects i'd agree. In others i dont. Each to their own of course. I also freely admit that since i was about 12 i've collected a vast range of romances... i now turn 18 within a months time *hurrah* and i've probably read between 400-600 of the *cheap* thrill books. Personally, in a time when things had no romantic glossy cover for me the books were perfect. They enabled me to realise that you can be a strong, independant modern female whilst reading said cheap romantic thrills. But despite the cultural stereotyping within the novels, the sometimes repetitive writing styles and the obscene characterisation of females; there is a valuable message inside them. Love. Now it doesnt have to be marriage or kids that take u there... but in a day and age where our focal concern is money, material items, getting work etc. climbing that property ladder... we forget that sometimes the most basic relationships are what we need. The only thing i'd criticise about the books that sailed me through my teens is that there's never a big girl portrayed in any of them. The male is always the boss, the female always picture perfect. It does not show reality in that context, but the building of the novel and plots itself show sometimes stark reality that wasnt present in them many years ago. Romance novels make you think, it gives you an easy and emotional read that takes your mind away from the stress of reality at times. now, imma go enjoy Nathan creating a relationship with his newly found daughter from a woman who used to be his brother's fiance. Marvel at how skilled writers can turn something reasonably immoral into two heros. And thank the chocolate Goddess that in reality the flaws of humans build relationships into more spicer and complex states that no romance can thoroughly portray.

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