I recently finished TJ Klune’s Tell Me It’s Real, about an ordinary guy with body issues and the hottie who falls for him, and it made me think about something that has always bothered me with the romance genre—the obsession with physical perfection to an almost clichéd degree. I have been reading romance since… well, since I was able to sneak peeks at my grandmother’s Harlequins as a pre-teen, and I have seen the mainstream romance genre change over the years, but what is actually more surprising to me is how much it has not changed. Yes, we now have werewolves and vampires, and hotter sex, and more feisty, independent heroines, but for the most part the characters are still rich, young and attractive. Just browse the bookshelves in the romance section of any bookstore and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I know that there are writers trying to change this, but unfortunately they are still the minority.
I purposefully chose this book because of the premise. I adore “average Joe’s”. I’m tired of hunks with washboard abs and chiseled jaws which seem to make up the bulk of romance these days, so it was a refreshing change. I love how the main character Paul ends up at Dunkin’ Donuts instead of the gym, and how right up front the author mocks the repetitive conventions found in so many m/m romances like the fact that “everyone has a ten-inch cock and big balls that can create semen by the bucketful”. Klune plays with stereotypes found in most romances. “Most of the time when you hear stories like the one you’re about to, the narrator is this perfect specimen of man, whether he knows it or not,” says Paul. How many times have we all read that—the wallflower who is really a beauty? Vince, the love interest is gorgeous, but a little dim, and kudos to Klune for never having him reassure Paul about his physical appearance or go on at length about Paul’s “inner beauty”. Vince is simply attracted to Paul, and that’s it.
As readers, our tastes for any genre evolve over time as we ourselves evolve, and I have pretty much given up reading mainstream romance these days. Maybe it’s a fact of getting older, or that my tolerance for bullshit is rapidly diminishing, but I start to gag when I read about yet another set of six-pack abs, and don’t get me started on all these Lords and Ladies running around historical romances.
Of all the possible criticisms levelled at Shades of Grey, my biggest one was the stereotyping of the characters—the thin, busty, beautiful, virgin (who of course doesn’t recognize her own beauty) and the handsome, enigmatic, rich man who runs a billion dollar corporation before the age of thirty (and without a college diploma). I gave up once Christian started buying Anastasia high-end cars as if it was a normal thing to do. Talk about your 1%!!! How can I possibly relate to those characters?
Let me take a minute to differentiate between erotica and romance; erotica, which is sex based, is by its very nature focused on physical appearance and that’s not likely to ever change. Some writers, like Anais Nin, manage to write amazing erotica without resorting to physically perfect characters, but most of the current market falls into the stereotypes. Romance on the other hand, is character and emotion focused, so I find it harder to understand why we don’t see more “ordinary” people represented in the genre. One doesn’t need to be a duke to fall in love—in fact, in most historical romance, the character’s peerage or pedigree doesn’t even contribute to the tension, so why is it even necessary? Can you tell I lean more toward Catherine Cookson than Barbara Cartland?
But it’s all part of the fantasy–escapism, some people would say. As a life-long romance reader I know that you have to suspend disbelief to some degree, but should we suspend it entirely? Maybe it all depends on one’s idea of “fantasy”. For me, the “fantasy” of romance has always been rooted in the reality; the chance that this could possibly happen, that two people could meet and fall in love. Of course attraction plays a huge part, but does it always have to be complete physical perfection? That seems so contrary to human experience. Killer abs do not form the basis for a lasting relationship. Attraction is subjective. Most people can tell you what attracted them to their partner, but it’s usually something very specific and often innocuous, like their eyes, their laugh, a nice smile, a pair of strong shoulders.
In 2013 is Christian Grey still our collective fantasy? Don’t we know by now that rich, powerful men are likely to cheat or trade up; that multi-billionaire CEOs are married to their jobs and rarely see their families; that until recently, nobles of any century never married for love?
One of the things I love most about independent publishers, self-publishing and the e-book revolution in general, is the opportunity to tell different stories, to write and read smaller, more intimate stories where characters don’t need to be defined by what sells the most. In my own writing, I try not to dwell too much on physical description—I like to provide a basic sketch (tall, short, thin, dark, fair etc.) and then let the reader’s imagination take over. My characters so far are pretty ordinary, boring even—people you or I might know. I truly believe that the mark of any good writer—no matter the genre—is the ability to create believable, relate-able characters. They can be good looking, they can even be rich, but there has to be that hint of reality as well—at least for me. Maybe you can’t relate to their profession, or their situation, but there is something—perhaps just a thought, a hint of emotion, the way they treat their family—that makes them real to us readers. These are the characters I would like to see more of.