Sunday, June 16, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Other Loves

So I'm working on a synopsis of a YA book, paring it down to two pages and now I get to make those two pages interesting, and the thing is, there's no "love interest" in this book. The protagonist, who is male, has an intense personal relationship with a foster-sister but it's not sexual and cannot be sexual - he recoils from the idea of it, because of her history. He has an (unspoken) crush on another female character but it's not something he's ever going to act on. And he's got a lot of other crap going on in his life and, though he spends some time thinking about sex (of which he has little to no experience) he doesn't think about romantic love. There's no room for it in the story.

And that could be a problem, selling this thing, because our culture is aggressively romantic. You only have to look in the fandoms to see that we want our close personal relationships to be romantic and if they aren't in the story, we'll invent them. Any close male/female friendship will be cast as a romance by fans (and usually by the source, if it's a series and goes on long enough), which is explicable as heterosexism rearing its ugly head; but the fans will also ship male/male friends, partners, colleagues, and particular types of enemies; and female/female ones, on those rare occasions when they get the chance. One reason for the rarity of female/female friendships of the Holmes/Watson variety seems to be (but I haven't run statistics and this could be perceptual bias) the tendency of People Who Make Decisions to see them as "dykey," as if there were something wrong with that.

Personally I think we could use more girlfriend bonds in media along the lines of Holmes/Watson or Kirk/Spock, and of course I think we need more variety in our romantic pairings, too. But I am not comfortable with the projection of romance into every pair bond, or the universal treatment of The Romantic Relationship as the single most important one in life; and certainly not with the automatic equation of love with eros. Eight-year-olds should be able to hug each other without being mentally married by the adults around them; adults should be able to love children and express it with asexual physical contact without squicking everyone around them; a man should be able to look after his mother in her old age without everyone assuming that she's controlling and stunting him; and adults and teens should not feel that lacking a romantic partner is the same thing as lacking the emotional core of their lives.

The centrality of the romantic relationship to life is a recent invention, coming in with companionate marriage (of which I thoroughly approve, being in one; but if I weren't I bet I could find other emotional outlets), but you'd never know it reading historical fiction. Although the great love stories of the past tended to be tragedies, and in many cases should be read as warnings against letting one relationship consume your life, historical fiction, and fantasy fiction using the imagery of the past, overwhelmingly subverts that cultural reality. Lovers tend to be sympathetic protagonists and the tragedy arises, not from their stubborn persistence in clinging to each other in the face of all the reasons not to, but from the wickedness of the opposition and oppression of a hidebound and tyrannical society. As if our own society were any less hidebound and tyrannical in its way!

We do see, especially in sword-and-sandals and horse-opera types of stories, brothers-in-arms scenarios in which romantic relationships are backgrounded by the simple expedient of backgrounding all the women; I need hardly say that this is not a satisfactory corrective. I wouldn't mind seeing the background of one of those epics brought to the fore; see what the women are doing while the men muck about making what is assumed to be the important plot (but which is generally a frenetic destructive chase after goals that, even if achieved, lack the strong emotional payoff of a good romantic plot). If the men are out searching for treasure or revenge or some damn thing and only coming home to get laid and swap out their laundry, the women, if they have any sense at all, will be doing the things that build and maintain a society - not only raising the children, but building the infrastructure, creating and maintaining the traditions, producing the food and material goods, and forging the emotional bonds that keep us healthy as individuals.

So I think what I'd like to see is some world-building that rearranges priorities so that the reader can internalize a non-romantic relationship as the important one. If a society is matrilineal, the important male authority figure in a child's life may be the maternal grandfather or uncle(s), not the father; and the emotional bonds that trump all others may be between siblings, or children and grandparents. The core familial relationship of mother/child may be less sentimental, more practical, and/or more honest. Can we go there; can we recreate a mental medieval universe in which nets of obligation are more important than personal relationships, and believe in characters who find emotional fulfillment that way?

And can we sell it, if we do?

I think it is incumbent on historical novelists to at least give it the old college try; and I think SF and fantasy authors would benefit a great deal from the effort, anyway.

1 comment:

  1. I have a friend who is Hindu. He is a full-grown adult, full-time student in college, and takes care of his aging parents and younger brother. He practically has grown up in the states, but his cultural background - like many Asians - is very collectivist. You don't have to make a historical fiction novel. The alternative is to make a contemporary fiction novel that involves a different culture; maybe readers would like that because it sounds "exotic". Of course, you'd probably have to research the culture and its social norms and customs.