Romance, Compassion, and Inclusivity (Or: How Romance Will Save the World)
By Cat SebastianAugust 29, 2018
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Think about the time you first learned about perspective in literature. You were probably young, in school, in an English class, and the teacher revealed something you had likely already sensed. There are, she might have explained, several different points of view: third person, first person, the rarely used second person, the even rarer first-person plural. She may have also mentioned deep point of view, in which the reader is fully embedded in the character’s consciousness. In deep point of view — whether third or first or even second — the words on the page have all passed through the character’s mind. The reader sees the world of the book through the main characters’ eyes, and only sees what they see. There’s no omniscient narrator filtering the characters’ experiences or letting us in on facts the character or characters aren’t aware of.
The romance novel as it currently exists is almost exclusively written in deep point of view, usually alternating scene by scene between the principal characters. Romance novels arguably have their origin in this kind of shifting but deep, perspectival form. Jane Austen, whose novels many regard as the ancestors of the modern romance novel, actually invented free indirect discourse, which is when an omniscient third-person narrative slips in and out of various characters’ thoughts. There is, for example, an amazing party scene in Emma where in the span of a single paragraph, the omniscient narrator gives us glimpses into the minds of about a dozen guests.
I am a romance novelist and so of course, I am inclined to believe this, but the intimacy of the romance narrative and the lack of apparent filter between the reader and the characters create a unique connection between reader and characters, perhaps a connection that is stronger than in other genres. Indeed, since the story is dedicated to characters falling in love, and since the reader follows them so closely, some readers have likened the experience to actually falling in love with the characters. And at the end of a romance novel, there is always full disclosure: no secrets, either between the main characters or between the characters and the reader. The happy ending required by the genre depends partly on the protagonists seeing one another for who they truly are, accepting one another’s flaws. They must see each other with compassion and understanding, and ideally the reader would be right there with them.
For me, a successful romance novel requires a narrative sleight of hand. In order to actually enjoy the book’s resolution, the reader has to see the characters clearly and must extend the same compassion toward them that the characters feel toward one another. This rule applies to all kinds of flaws and all kinds of characters. The romance writer must bridge the gap between readers and characters they might not otherwise feel sympathetic toward. In order for a romance novel to deliver a satisfying conclusion, the reader has to believe that the characters deserve happiness, that they deserve the love and respect of a partner. If the reader doesn’t believe the characters worthy of love, the book inevitably falls flat. It’s a constant, formal reminder that we’re all worthy of love, despite our imperfections.
In order to stay fresh and interesting and subvert reader expectations, this requirement has actually forced the romance genre to invent some of the most flawed heroes and heroines in literature. Indeed, some of the most beloved romances involve deeply flawed people. Emma, for example, is not particularly likable — she is snobbish, a little rude, infamously meddlesome. The heroine of Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, one of the most popular romance novels of all time, actually shoots her future husband. That’s not even getting into the grifters, liars, layabouts, and traitors who populate some of the genre’s classics. Part of what makes a romance novel satisfying is knowing that over the course of the story the main characters will inevitably get their acts together, at least partly, and improve as human beings. They will also eventually discover that they are worthy of respect and love despite their worst flaws.
In that way, romance novels show us that we are also deserving of love, respect, and happy endings despite what we might think of as our least endearing qualities. My own books, for example, are full of prickly, disorganized, judgmental, cagily private, chronically unpunctual characters. I will tactfully elide over their connections to the author herself, and simply point out that when they do get their happy endings, they’re still flawed. Love doesn’t solve their problems or transform them into perfect people, but they don’t need to be perfect to have love.
This arc is certainly not unique to the romance genre; any book might serve as a conduit for empathy. But in romance it is a constant and recurring trope. Furthermore, romance novels provide a unique reminder that we share a common humanity — you can’t read a book in which you’re deeply embedded in the consciousness of a character, rejoice in this character finding the love and happiness they wanted, and then deny that character’s humanity. I have faith that this is true even when the reader doesn’t necessarily recognize their own identity in the identity of the character. I hope that in reading about a character who belongs to a marginalized group, the recognition of humanity can extend past the character and into the group as a whole.
For a reader who might share a character’s marginalization, this experience can be hugely affirming and reassuring. For example, I will never tire of romances featuring characters with chronic pain and anxiety issues; it’s just awesomely reaffirming to see a character like myself be loved and adored. For a reader who doesn’t share that marginalization, this experience can be an object lesson in joy, in a number of different ways. If the reader wants to enjoy the story, they have to embrace the character’s humanity, and they have to root for the character’s happiness. The reader’s joy merges with the joy of the book’s characters, one becomes dependent on the other. Happiness and love become contingent.
Books can immerse readers in any kind of life — the queer, the disabled, the person of color — but romance is the only genre that demands a happy ending. It structures the entire story around that demand and takes the reader along with it. This isn’t just empathy, it is a restructuring of the way people might think of other human beings — who deserves and should expect happiness, who can be loved. There are no other books that insist on joy and love as an end in itself. This is nothing less than radical. Books have long made intellectual arguments and political stances. They have also long engaged in the power of empathy, anger, made a case for rights and humanity. This is not new. But how often do we read something that insists simply on another’s right to love and happiness? Something that helps us understand the importance of sheer pleasure as it is experienced by other people? We don’t often allow the joy of others’ precedence in this way.
As a romance writer myself, I believe that romance novels, through their form and their demand that the reader accept the worth of the main characters, can be a tool of social justice. They put you directly into somebody else’s shoes and force you to acknowledge the gaps between their experience and your own. If you want to enjoy the story, you have to buy into the essential humanity of the main characters. It’s simply the price of entry. The reader absolutely must attempt to understand what it means to have that identity, and if they accept the premise of the form and the premise of the book, must accept that this identity is as worthy of happiness as their own.
Historical romance actually allows the reader to go a step further. The best historical fiction allows a reader to inhabit the past and to embrace the mores and values that motivated people in a different time and place. It also allows for us to reimagine the traditional narratives that history has given us. Inclusive historical romances — featuring characters who are LGBTQ, disabled, neurodivergent, and people of color — can remind us that history is itself diverse, that marginalized groups have always existed. This is a fact most of us know rationally, of course, but it is otherwise consistently erased from the way we talk about our past. The dominant narrative has been and still is white supremacy, so when we see, say, a movie set in 1815 London and the cast is entirely white, we might not even bat an eye. That’s because we’ve seen this utterly unhistorical version of the past dozens of times before. We’ve seen it so many times that it has become the default. This way of portraying history — without the people of color who shaped it, without the many queer lives and loves that it no doubt held — only reinforces the idea that history belongs to white, straight, able-bodied people, that everyone else is an outlier, a new invention, a guest.
Historical romance can show this for the lie it is. Love and partnership haven’t always been between men and women. Gender hasn’t always been understood as a binary. Sexuality and sex have existed in all their forms this entire time. This can, again, help us see that people deserve happiness even when the structures of society conspire against them, even when their contemporaries fail to recognize their humanity. We can witness the denial of rights and acknowledge the many different ways that people have been able to thrive and persevere despite injustice. We can grapple with the failures of the past and see how those old patterns repeat in the present. We can also perhaps begin to rewrite some of that history, begin to imagine it and see it for what it really was. I hope that these novels might also help us ask difficult questions: Why are the prevailing historical narratives rooted in white, straight, cis-gendered, neurotpyical, able-bodied stories? Why does fiction go to such lengths to preserve this homogeneous vision of the past? Who stands to gain by erasing people from history? And more troublingly: Are we complicit if we only consume those narratives?
When people ask why I began to write historical romance, I usually try to give a diplomatic answer but the truth is that I was unhappy with my reading options. I could read historical fiction about people like me, but it was likely not going to be an uplifting tale. If I wanted a guaranteed happy ending, most of my options involved stories about straight neurotypical people. This, thank heavens, has changed a lot in the past few years. There seems to be a huge and growing interest in romances — historical, contemporary, paranormal, and every subgenre — that tell the stories of people who were previously erased. Part of this, no doubt, is that people within marginalized groups are using their money to support the stories that reflect their own lives, but we’re also seeing a broader interest doesn’t depend on shared identity. This gives me hope: if a person chooses to read a romance with a character who uses a wheelchair, or who is an immigrant, or who is transgender, then I believe they’ll treat actual people with those identities as human beings who have rights (like health care, visas, and bathrooms) and people who deserve, like everyone else, happiness.
Romance is one of the most derided genres, but the derision underestimates the genre’s power. Romance specializes in creating partnerships: the head and the heart; the lover and the beloved; the reader and the character. Who can fight love? A happy ending is guaranteed, as long as we both wish for it.
Cat Sebastian writes LGBTQ historical romance. Her most recent book is A Gentleman Never Keeps Score.
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